Six Billion Tons Of Sand Dredged From Oceans Each Year; Threatens Marine Life, Ocean Communities

By Anna Louise Sep 06, 2023 09:21 AM EDT


(Photo : Getty Images/Nicolas Tucat)

Sand is the world's second most exploited natural resource after water, and it is used to make concrete and glass.

According to startling statistics from a new UN data platform, the marine dredging industry extracts six billion tons of sand and debris each year.

This is equivalent to nearly one million dump trucks, putting enormous strain on marine biodiversity and the well-being of coastal populations.

A strategic material

While shallow-sea mining for sand and gravel is necessary for many construction projects, it poses a significant threat to coastal communities dealing with rising sea levels and storms.

Sand extraction also threatens coastal and seabed ecosystems, affecting marine biodiversity, sea nutrients, and noise pollution, as well as aquifer salinization and future tourism growth.

"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.

He added that the marine environment must have time to recover.

Large vessels were "basically sterilizing the bottom of the sea by extracting sand and crunching all the microorganisms that are feeding fish."

However, the sand is sometimes dug into the bedrock, implying that marine life may never recover.

The senior UN official urged countries and the dredging industry to recognize sand as a strategic material and to begin discussions on how to enhance dredging standards globally as soon as possible.

"This data signals the urgent need for better management of marine sand resources and to reduce the impacts of shallow sea mining," he added.

To avert an environmental disaster, UNEP asked for improved monitoring of sand extraction and use last year.

It advocated for a halt to beach mining and the establishment of an international standard for extraction in the marine environment.

The International Association of Dredging Companies (IADC) launched a paper on best practices for responsible dredging of the "scant resource". Overall, the aggregate industry is worth hundreds of billions of dollars annually.

While international practices and regulations vary, some countries, including Indonesia, Thailand, Malaysia, Vietnam and Cambodia, have banned marine sand export.

Marine Sand Watch

The findings of the United Nations Environment Programme (UNEP) coincide with the launch of a new platform, 'Marine Sand Watch,' supported by Swiss government financing, that monitors dredging activities through marine tracking and artificial intelligence.

It tracks and monitors sand, clay, silt, gravel, and rock extraction in the world's maritime habitats using artificial intelligence and autonomous signals from ships.

It provides critical data on sand extraction zones (sand concessions), capital and maintenance dredging locations, sand trading hubs, vessel numbers, and at-sea operators.

While the platform is a pioneering tool, according to UNEP, it presently cannot detect artisanal and small-scale mining along shallow beaches, despite its intensity in some locations.

"The amount of sand we are withdrawing from the environment is considerable and has a large impact," Peduzzi told a Geneva press briefing.

The platform has identified "hotspots" of concern, including the North Sea, Southeast Asia, and the United States' east coast.

Marine sand is being extracted far faster than it is replaced from rivers in many regions where extraction is more intense, including parts of Asia.

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