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UN: Sand Mining is Reaching Unsustainable Levels

Sand dredging barge
Courtesy UNEP

Published Sep 5, 2023 9:45 PM by The Maritime Executive

The UN Environment Programme hopes to draw attention to an under-recognized threat to biodiversity: marine sand mining. According to UNEP, marine dredging digs up six billion tonnes of sand from the seabed every year, damaging ecosystems in regions where extraction is most intense. To get at the problem, the agency is developing a platform to track dredging using AIS and AI, which will aid research and monitoring efforts.

Sand and gravel are widely extracted from coastal environments for use in making concrete and other construction uses. The process affects water turbidity and nutrient availability for marine life, and can impact the salinization of freshwater aquifiers in coastal communities, particularly when extraction exceeds the pace of replenishment from natural erosion. 

The extraction of sand is ungoverned and unmonitored in many parts of the world, and UNEP is calling for better tracking and management of this activity. The agency has called for a halt to sand extraction from beaches and nearshore sandbanks and the creation of international standards on managing sand as a resource. 

“The scale of environmental impacts of shallow sea mining activities and dredging is alarming, including biodiversity, water turbidity, and noise impacts on marine mammals,” said Pascal Peduzzi, Director of GRID-Geneva at UNEP. “UNEP invites all stakeholders, Member States and the dredging sector to consider sand as a strategic material, and to swiftly engage in talks on how to improve dredging standards around the world.” 

UNEP points to the example set by Indonesia, Thailand, Malaysia, Vietnam, and Cambodia, which have all banned marine sand exports in recent years. 

The agency has set up a new data platform, Marine Sand Watch, in order to monitor dredging activity in marine environments. Drawing on AIS data, the platform helps track and differentiate related maritime activities, like sand mining, sand trading terminals, and maintenance/capital dredging projects. As it is AIS-based, the platform is not yet equipped to monitor artisanal and small-scale mining, even in areas where it is common. UNEP continues to work with University of Geneva, Global Fishing Watch and UC Santa Barbara to improve detection and monitoring accuracy.