Sand mining is pushing already critically endangered cetaceans to extinction. But there is still hope

The United Nations Environment Program (UNEP) considers sand to be the second most exploited resource in the world, second only to water. Estimates show that, every year, 50 billion tons of sand are used worldwide, mainly for the production of concrete used in the construction sector.

However, in a study published last April, the environmental agency points out that sand mining can be a factor in the degradation of marine and coastal ecosystems, causing erosion, salinization of aquifers, destruction of natural storm barriers and loss of biodiversity. It therefore calls for sand to be considered a “strategic resource” and properly regulated because of all the implications.

An article published this month in the journal Proceedings of the Royal Society B reveals that the effects of sand mining on biodiversity may be even more devastating than previously thought.

the whale Neophocaena asiaeorientalis asiaeorientalis it is currently considered a “critically endangered” species by the International Union for Conservation of Nature (IUCN) and is being pushed towards extinction due to sand mining, which the authors say is “one of the greatest environmental challenges of the 21st century” . , and which destroys its natural environment.

This animal looks like a dolphin, but it does not have a dorsal fin, so it looks more like a beluga, and in addition, it lives in fresh water, lakes and rivers. The scientific consensus points out that this species would have diverged from its oceanic relatives thousands of years ago, having migrated to rivers.

As for its geographical distribution, the population, which does not exceed 1,800 people, is concentrated on the Yangtze River, in China, which, running more than six thousand kilometers, is the longest in the entire Asian continent.

The scientists focused their research on China’s Dongting Lake, which feeds the Yangtze, and observed that the population of this endangered species of dolphin is increasingly restricted to small areas of this lake and suggest that the cause of this restriction in its distribution will be the mining of sand.

Analyzing the relationship between this activity and the dolphin population between 2006 and 2019 in Dongting, the researchers realized that the distribution of these aquatic mammals is greater when the intensity of sand mining in the lake is lower. The noise, the large movement of ships on the surface and the reduction of their prey do it N. asiae orientalis they seek refuge in smaller and smaller areas. Estimates show a reduction of up to 20 square kilometers in the distribution area of ​​these animals during periods of high mining activity.

The authors argue that the stress to which porpoises are subjected may be “amplified” during periods when the water in the lake is lower, as it reduces the ability of these animals to escape. In addition, sand mining makes it difficult or even prevents the dispersal of dolphins from the lake to the Yangtze River due to boat traffic, which also impedes the movement of the fish they feed on.

And they warn that habitat degradation “may have lasting effects”, adversely affecting the occurrence of species essential to the well-functioning food chains of Dongting Lake and, of course, posing a threat to the survival of these charismatic cetaceans, known for their ‘smile’ ‘.

However, it is possible to avoid an ecological disaster. In 2017, the Chinese government suspended sand mining in the lake, and two years later the dolphins returned to waters previously traversed by many ships and filled with the noise of heavy machinery. Therefore, experts believe that it is still possible to reverse the trajectory of decline that has endangered the existence of this critically endangered species, if Nature is given room to recover.

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