Fish, Fisheries, Fisherfolk · Rivers · Sand Mining

WFD 2020: Impacts of River Sand Mining on Riverine Fisheries

World Fisheries Day 2020 is being celebrated, like every year, on Nov 21, 2020[i]. Though FAO celebrated it on Nov 20, 2020[ii]. From India, NPSSFW[iii] has called upon small scale fish workers to celebrate the World Fisheries Day 2020 with hope, determination and fervour. [Feature Photo above: Jal Satyagaraha by women in Banda (UP) against Sand Mining.]

SANDRP has been publishing articles during WFD in 2019[iv], Article about Mass fish deaths due to pollution, dry rivers in India[v], 2018[vi], 2017[vii] when Gujarat Fish workers dependent on Narmada River Demand cancellation of Bhadbhut Dam, rejuvenation of River, 2016 memory note on Ganga, Narora Barrage and Fish ladder[viii], 2015[ix] and 2013 note on community fish sanctuaries[x].

The South Africa Government on the occasion noted[xi]: “A recent United Nations study reported that more than two-thirds of the world’s fisheries have been overfished or are fully harvested and more than one third are in a state of decline because of factors such as the loss of essential fish habitats, pollution, and global warming.” Incidentally among the biggest reasons for the loss of essential fish habitats are dams, hydropower projects, barrages and water diversions.

River Sand Mining destroys Riverine Fisheries However, among the causes for the destruction of the essential fish habitats that has not been sufficiently recognised includes the river sand mining. The cumulative impact of river sand mining at multiple locations and in combination with other riverine interventions has not even been studied.

India Rivers Week 2020 is focusing this year on: “Is sand mining Killing our Rivers?” As part of IRW 2020, Zonal Sand Mining reports have been brought out and Zonal Sand Mining Dialogues are being held, the last one for East Zone to happen on World Fisheries Day 2020, that is on Nov 21, 2020 (4-6.30pm). The National Dialogue is to happen on Nov 28, 2020. For details and for joining the dialogues, see:

East Zone Some of the ways in which River Sand Mining affects the riverine fisheries include the following, as highlighted in the East Zone River Sand Mining Report (Nov 2020)[xii].

  • The primary impact of River Sand Mining is the loss of habitat for vegetation, invertebrates, fishes, turtles, crocodilians, birds, and mammals. This means the loss or shrinking of breeding/spawning sites, loss of food and ultimately changes in fish populations and community composition.
  • Aquatic biodiversity is susceptible to increases in turbidity, changes in temperature, and oxygen availability in the water column following Sand mining & the removal of gravel.
  • In-stream mining has direct negative impacts, while floodplain or terrace mining have indirect effects, as they increase fine sediment that gets deposited into the river water later.
  • Negative impacts of sand mining have also been reported on plankton, with significant reductions in numbers and abundances of species at mined sites along the Ganga River. As invertebrates form the bulk of primary consumers in riverine and lake food webs, such impacts can affect higher order organisms and animals in the food chain, all the way to human beings due to loss of fish, shrimps, etc.
  • As gravel and sand mining targets for construction materials match closely with the substrate preferences of fish, nest-guarder or brooder species might be badly affected by the extraction of sediment from in-stream mining.
  • Prolonged exposure to sand mining can cause irreversible effects on fish spawning habitats, as well as on population and community structure. Sand mining can lead to changes in turbidity, water temperature, and dissolved oxygen, which can cause mass kills of fish spawn and juveniles, due to smothering of fish by the entry of fine silt particles into gills, or eggs getting covered by silt and termination of embryo development. Sand mining induced changes in thermal regimes may cause fish mortality or avoidance of mined habitats and affect the survival ability of fishes, besides reduced reproductive fitness due to severe physiological stress.
  • “Sand mining not only erodes river banks but also degrades the river’s ecosystem, affecting fishes and dolphins. Besides this, depletion of sand in the streambed deepens rivers and estuaries and enlarges river mouths and coastal inlets – leading to the intrusion of saline water from the sea,” says BC Barman, deputy director (hydraulics) at the River Research Institute in Nadia (W Bengal).
  • At present, sand mining investigations are mostly at the reach scale, and cumulative impacts of multiple operations are rarely examined.

North Zone Some impacts that are highlighted in North Zone River Sand Mining Report[xiii] (Oct 2020) are listed here.

  • As per rules in Jammu & Kashmir, mining operation also need clearances from Fisheries department, however it is not being followed. The department has also expressed its apprehension through letter to principal secretary in July 2020.
  • The Himachal Pradesh State Fisheries minister accepted in assembly that fisheries are getting affected due to river sand mining.
  • The North Zone report recommends creation of river fish sanctuaries, no go areas for sand mining, among other measures.

South Zone Some key issues raised in the South Zone River Sand Mining Report[xiv] (Nov 2020) are described here.

  • Extraction of sand from the banks of the Tunga near Chibbalagudde in Tirthahalli taluk is posing a threat to the fish sanctuary that hosts 27 species of fish.
  • Former IFS officer and noted environmentalist AN Yellappa Reddy said, in May 2020, while explaining the implications of Karnataka’s new Sand Mining Policy, “This move is highly detrimental to the environment. The sand bed provides an excellent living media for aquatic plants and animals. Most aquatic animals — frogs, crabs, fish — won’t survive otherwise. This will completely kill the biodiversity of these water bodies and without these plants and animals, the water won’t remain clean. They are also important for keeping the dissolved oxygen levels and also without them the organic material that is released into the water won’t be converted into biomass.”
  • In this context the Report of the South Zone Sand Mining Dialogue[xv] says: In Cauvery basin, “Sand mining has displaced fishermen and otters from their fish sources. This has also led to increasing conflicts between the fishermen and otters. Fishermen see Otters taking away their fish and also damaging their nets in the process, which is big setback for the fishermen. Fishermen occupy the lowermost strata in the society and have no capacity to confront the sand mafia.”

West Zone Issues raised about the impacts of River Sand Mining on fisheries in the West Zone River Sand Mining Report[xvi] include the following.

  • Broadly, the ecological impacts of sand mining on rivers may be direct where aggregate removal is directly responsible for ecosystem damage, habitat loss and other physical changes to the ecosystem, or indirect where aggregate removal can alter channel morphology which in turn can alter the distribution of habitats and ecosystem functioning, deterioration of water quality, and hydraulic changes affecting movement of fish and habitat availability.
  • One of the significant impacts is the severe population declines through physical changes to habitat availability and structure, destruction of spawning grounds, and interference to migration routes. Changes in river hydraulics and habitat modifications arising from the removal of riffle-sequences due to mining, channel incision and widening (in conjunction with stressors such as dams) lead to the replacement of lotic species by lentic species and allowed generalist and invasive species to displace native habitat specialists.
  • Selective removal of sediments, particularly of sizes that are used by fish to construct spawning beds or nests, results in the destruction of spawning habitats. Fish reproduction is also hampered by mining-related rearrangement of benthic sediments which decreases the stability of the sediment deposits and impacts embryos sheltering within them. Decreased habitat complexity through the replacement of rugose substrates by well-embedded fine-grained substrates threatens reproductive guilds requiring coarse substrates for nesting, and these fine sediments also directly impact silt sensitive fish species.
  • In Madhya Pradesh, there has been a decline in the fish population, including species (mahseer, common carb, rohu [not the cultivated variety], etc.), mainly because of the increasing turbidity of the rivers and changes in the local ecosystems (for example, certain grasses are not there and they are important for the “vegetarian” fishes, or sunlight does not reach deeper levels, etc).
  • Sand mining can also modify feeding and food web structures — sight feeders such as trout and bass are more likely to be harmed than non-sight feeders such as catfish at higher levels of turbidity, and fish from undredged sites have been shown to obtain nutrients from the benthos, whereas fish in dredged areas relied on phytoplankton and terrestrial detritus and occupied lower trophic positions.
  • Lowering of ground water levels due to mining has also been shown to reduce the intensity of cold water plumes created by groundwater seeps, and these thermal refugia are critical for poikilothermic fish seeking to escape warm summer river temperatures.
  • Fishing communities are also the most affected due to loss of local species like clamps, shell fish, crabs and reductions in the fish catch.
  • The intricate relationships between the fishers, the small-scale sand miners, the sand farmers, the birds and the trees pertain not only to the possibilities of developing sustainable ways of human life in an economic sense, but also sustaining all life forms and their relationships.

Looking Forward As the South African Government noted: “Unless we address these issues collectively, the crisis will deepen. The World Fisheries Day helps to highlight these problems, and move towards finding solutions to the increasingly inter-connected problems we are facing, and in the longer term, to sustainable means of maintaining fish stocks.”

The first step in this context would be for all concerned, particularly the governments at the centre and states in India to recognise the reality that sand mining has major adverse impact on Riverine fisheries and this must be studied. The Environment Impact Assessment studies of the River Sand Mining Projects must include a section about the impact of sand mining on the fisheries. The Environment Management Plan must include provisions for compensating those affected by such adverse impact on fisheries prior to starting the the sand mining. Mitigation measures like protection of certain sections from sand mining should be urgently implemented. The informed consent of the fisheries dependent communities before any sand mining proposals must be a statutory requirement.



[i] On 21st Nov 1997 representatives of small-scale, artisanal fishers and fish workers from 32

countries gathered together in New Delhi, India for the first time to form an international fishers’ organization and committed themselves to work for global sustainable fishing policies, practices and social justice under the leadership of Fr. Thomas Kochery and Harekrishna Debnath, two legendary leaders of the small scale fishing communities. From then on 21st November is celebrated as World Fisheries Day.


[iii] National Platform for Small Scale Fish Workers














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