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National Waterways Bill: Digging our rivers’ graves?

Nachiket Kelkar writes: This Bill plans to convert 106 rivers and creeks across India into waterway canals, purportedly for ‘eco-friendly transport’ of cargo, coal, industrial raw materials, and tourism. Unfortunately there is no debate on the high ecological and social risks the NWB poses to riverine biodiversity and local resources through such irreversible engineering controls.

A summary analysis of the ecological impacts of the National Waterways Bill (2015)

Nachiket Kelkar, SANDRP


Introduction: The National Waterways Bill (NWB, Bill No. 122 of 2015) was tabled by the current central government’s Minister of Transport and Shipping, Mr. Nitin Gadkari, in May 2015. This Bill plans to convert 106 rivers and creeks across India into waterway canals, purportedly for ‘eco-friendly transport’ of cargo, coal, industrial raw materials, and for tourism purposes. The primary reasons provided for this bill are that 1) inland water transport is fuel-efficient, cost-effective and eco-friendly, 2) the systematic development of waterways will create progressive economic opportunities in the country, and 3) the potential of water transport is underutilized in India. The Bill has since been examined by the Standing Committee appointed of Rajya Sabha Members and experts on the matter, who submitted their findings in Report No. 223 (Rajya Sabha Secretariat, August 2015). Recently, the Bill has been cleared by the Lok Sabha, and awaits final discussion in the Rajya Sabha within a fortnight’s time.

As of now the NWB appears to enjoy support across party lines, states and political positions and agendas. There is also a belief that waterways would mean maintenance of enough water flowing in our rivers – yet the means through which this is proposed to be achieved involve capital dredging and large-scale conversion of floodplain environments and riverbanks to concrete embankments. A serious concern of observers has been that there has unfortunately been but scant debate on the high ecological and social risks the NWB poses to riverine biodiversity and local resource users through such irreversible engineering controls on our rivers. There is no discussion among politicians and administrators.

Importantly, this issue appears to have barely received adequate attention even in environment and conservation circles. Problematically enough, the NWB thus emerges as a threat that may go unnoticed by conservationists and get passed without debate, deliberation or emphasis on environmental clearances to the extent required. In this article I will discuss the potentially damaging consequences of the NWB on river ecology, human life and hydrological dynamics of India’s riverscapes. My earlier article on the SANDRP blog ‘Four boats at a river crossing along Ganga’ (dated 28th December, 2015) had describedhttps://sandrp.wordpress.com/2015/12/28/four-boats-at-a-river-crossing/) ground experiences related to the impacts of large-scale inland water transport (IWT). Continuing there I attempt to provide a point-wise discussion and critique of the NWB. 

Policy document sources: This document discusses various points of contention as identified in 1) the draft of the National Waterways Bill (2015), and 2) the Standing Committee (SC, comprised of select members of the Rajya Sabha)’s initial appraisal of the implications of the said bill provided in its review and recommendations (Report 223, Rajya Sabha Secretariat 2015).

Observations on the National Waterways Bill draft, 2015 and Report 223 of the Standing Committee, Rajya Sabha on the Bill

  1. NWB as a river-control ploy: the Bill, at its core, appears to treat rivers as mere canals for waterways that can be commoditized for just this singular purpose. In fact, it appears that inland water transport, at the scale conceived by the bill, involves the centralized, unitary control of rivers by the Government of India. This will involve the construction of locking barrages to hold water for vessel movement, concretization and building of embankments to create port terminals, and regular (high-intensity) capital dredging of river sediment deposition along channel bottoms and margins. Worldwide, such interventions are known to have seriously damaging impacts on fish fauna, aquatic biodiversity, and people dependent on them. Although purportedly eco-friendly, there is not a single mention of “ecological” or “conservation” needs or concerns for rivers in the Bill draft.
  1. Rivers as nothing but water channels: The bill shows a poor understanding of the hydrological, geomorphological and socio-ecological complexities of India’s rivers. In this sense, it is a blind copy-and-paste proposal inspired from other waterways across the world that also conveniently ignores the failings of even these examples (e.g. ECMT 2006). Most river courses in the Ganga and Brahmaputra floodplains are highly dynamic and migratory. They show flooding pulses in the monsoons, but have little water in the dry-season. The resulting sediment deposition and erosion patterns in the river channels have historically made river navigation highly risk-prone. By treating rivers as mere “water-carriers” the bill dishonours the naturally dynamic flow regimes that involve ‘essential floods’, critical to sustaining river productivity and life-history of organisms like fishes. There is not a single mention of “ecology” or “conservation” needs of rivers in the Bill statement.
  1. Competing rights to and pressures on water: The Bill does not recognize natural limits on the proposed expansion of water use for transport in India, where multiple competing pressures already exist on water resources. Given the current and projected scale of water demands for irrigated agriculture, industry, thermal power plants, etc. (Pt. 18) of the Bill seems an entirely unfeasible idea entirely because of the basic requirement of adequate water availability. As a result the bill seems either unconcerned or naïve about considering rights to use water for diverse social and ecological needs. There is a cursory mention of “continuity of state rights to river water” (page 19, pt. 6 of NWB) yet there is no clear mechanism identified on how waterways development and already ongoing activities will be reconciled. The Rajya Sabha SC Report 223 rightly expresses concern about the conflicts that could be potentially generated at multiple levels: between state and central governments, between local human users and ecological needs of rivers, and between water allocations for transportation vis-a-vie irrigation and drinking water demands. Point No. 9 of the Report states land acquisition as a minor concern of the waterways development plan. However, there is absolutely no discussion on addressing issues of rights to water for direct needs such as fisheries-based livelihoods, pilgrimage, or rights for local navigation, which are unresolved in most cases even today. The Report mentions concern about rights to sediment and silt dredged from rivers (point 15.1) but deeper security for more fundamental water rights have been paid rather scant attention.
  1. Hazardous goods: The Bill contradicts its own claim that waterways are environmentally friendly means of transport because in the same breath, the statement of object (page 18, pt. 2) says that “hazardous goods” will also be transported by waterways. Accidental spillage could directly affect the health of millions of people in India that still depend on rivers for drinking, domestic uses, commerce, and livelihoods, and present life-threatening risks to aquatic species.
  2. Feasibility of Implementation: The Rajya Sabha Standing Committee’s Report 223 recognizes multiple lacunae and potentially serious gaps in the implementation of the proposed project. It details multiple ecological, social, commercial viability, and political-economic feasibility considerations and consequences for the 101 proposed national waterway development projects. Point 14 of the Report highlights that the Bill’s implementation will be conditional on Techno-Economic Feasibility, Environmental Clearances, and Detailed Project Reports, which is a welcome reminder to the Bill itself, of its potentially disastrous impacts on natural flowing water bodies. Point 22 of the Bill also highlights the opinion of the Indian Chamber of Commerce about how the lofty ambitions of the waterways project show strong disconnect with ground realities – and suggest first focussing on improving the effectiveness of the 5 existing waterways (Nos. 1 to 5 in bill) in a sustainable manner, before taking up 101 more river/coastal projects. Strong suspicion about the feasibility of the projects is also evident in the risk-averse and reluctant responses of companies towards taking up government tenders and contracts for port construction and dredging-related work (http://www.thehindubusinessline.com/companies/no-takers-for-ntpc-river-transport-deal/article7642357.ece). A case in point is the navigation lock of the Farakka Barrage on the Ganga, where navigation is hugely impaired due to high sediment loads, need for continuous and costly dredging and maintenance.


Navigation Lock at Farakka, Navigation is hugely impaired due to continuous sedimentation Photo: Parineeta Dandekar

  1. Where is the Water? At present, owing to numerous existing large and small dams, barrages, channel diversions, irrigation canals, thermal plants’ demand on river water, most rivers in India have extremely low or even NO water availability, especially in the dry season. It is indicative of the Bill’s ignorance of these realities because many such rivers are proposed for inclusion in national waterways (Pt. 15.4). The author is aware of the following rivers (enlisted with waterway numbers) that either have no water for nearly all year, or run as sewers carrying urban solid waste – but are included for development as National waterways: Ajoy (7), Aran (9), Betwa (17), Bheema (20), Budhabalanga (22), Damodar (28), Gomti (40), Indira Gandhi Canal (42), Jalangi (44), Manjara (67), Nag (71), Wardha (77), Punpun (79), Sone (88), Tapi (94), Tons (97), Vaigai (100), Wainganga/Pranahita (103) [this list is by no means an exhaustive one].
  2. Ecological impacts and effects of capital dredging on river sediment, biodiversity, fisheries productivity (Pt. 20.1), and concerns regarding environmental clearances (Pts. 17, 19.1):

Barrages have been planned in the Ganga River at every 100 km, to artificially raise water levels for 11 proposed terminal ports. The impacts of barrages on fish movements, flow (water, sediments and nutrients) regimes at daily, seasonal and annual scales, and other river-dependent biota and people – given the fateful experiences in India over the last 5 decades – are anybody’s guess (again, the Farakka barrage stands testimony to the magnitude and gravity of the problem:https://sandrp.wordpress.com/2014/11/25/lessons-from-farakka-as-we-plan-more-barrages-on-ganga/)


Inland Waterways Authority of India Machinary languishing at site , Farakka barrage. Photo:Parineeta Dandekar

Capital dredging proposed to deepen, widen, and maintain existing waterways (5 of which are supposed to be operational today, though all of them are operating at sub-optimal levels), has highly negative environmental impacts. Such dredging dislodges river sediment, thereby destroying fish breeding grounds, habitats for endangered freshwater turtles, fishes, sensitive aquatic invertebrates, and other organisms. In particular, substrate-breeding fish species are negatively affected by dredging and might even become locally extinct following failed breeding. As a bulk of fisheries depends on benthic (bottom-dwelling) fishes in most of India’s larger rivers, this will mean important threat to the sustainable production of fish in these systems as well. These impacts are well known and pose serious environmental concerns to many waterways across the world (e.g. Dolah et al. 1984, Travassos et al. 2012, Freedman et al. 2013).

Invasive species: One of the most common modes of spread and establishment of invasive species populations (mainly plants and fishes) is by waterways. Aquatic invasions in India threaten native aquatic biodiversity seriously, and aggravation of these threats might be disastrous for fisheries as well as navigation systems in turn (e.g. Koehn 2004, Arbaciauskas et al. 2008).

The noise and disturbance caused by intensive dredging activities is known to have deleterious impacts on aquatic biodiversity, especially the National Aquatic Animal of India, the Ganges River Dolphin Platanista gangetica gangetica. The endangered Gangetic dolphin is a unique, blind mammal that relies entirely on the use of ultrasonic sound production to forage and navigate in murky river waters of the Ganga-Brahmaputra river system with the use of echolocation, i.e. production and hearing of echoes from ultrasonic-frequency sounds. Our research predicts that dredging for waterways at the scale envisaged by the Bill will further endanger this emblematic species that is endemic to the Indian Subcontinent, owing to the following reasons: i) Range-level declines (local extinction) of Ganges river dolphins has been reported from many rivers due to the complete lack of river water availability (e.g. Sone), ii) river dolphin echolocation frequency might be masked by dredging and vessel engine sounds, which might seriously limit their ability to find food and navigate; iii) The physical upheaval of river sediment caused by dredging appears to be disturbing to river dolphins.

Our field observations in the Ganga River at Bhagalpur identify the negative impacts of heavy dredging on dolphins. River dolphins, in May 2014, moved about 2 km downstream from a regularly used hotspot areas near Barari, Bhagalpur town and stayed there for nearly one full week over which intensive dredging operations by the Inland Waterways Authority of India were conducted near the Vikramshila Setu. The authors noted that the surfacing frequency of river dolphins (breathing time between dives) reduced approximately 3 times as compared to a natural dive-rate of approx. 1.5-2.5 minutes during feeding peaks. In dolphins, this is a clear indication of stressful physiological and body conditions. Further, Ganges river dolphins are highly vocal in normal circumstances but their acoustic activity was noted to be much lower than on an average non-dredging day. Further, river dolphin mortality due to boat-propeller hits have been recorded on a couple of occasions from the same area. During the movement of tourist cruise ships, we observed that the impact of loud sounds produced by the engines lasted for over 2 minutes – in which river dolphin diving behaviour showed signs of suppression.

Dreging Mahananda.jpg

Dredging of Mahananda Photo: http://india-wris.nrsc.gov.in/

Approximately 90% of the viable Ganges River dolphin population in India overlaps with the extent of the proposed waterways in the Gangetic and Brahmaputra basins. The same is true for protected areas especially designated for river dolphins, such as the Vikramshila Gangetic Dolphin Sanctuary is a river stretch of 67 km length between Sultanganj and Kahalgaon towns in Bhagalpur district. At present, IWAI vessels have been regularly moving through, and conducting dredging operations throughout the sanctuary stretch – without any environmental or wildlife Appropriate measures are a must to mitigate the impacts of dredging on river dolphins as well as other riverine biodiversity. Other flagship protected areas included in the waterways declaration include the National Chambal Sanctuary (600 km, proposed waterway no. 24), the turtle sanctuary from Ramnagar Fort to Assi Ghat at Varanasi (6 km, Ganga national waterway no. 1), and others along the Brahmaputra River and its tributaries (nos. 2,6,16,29, 31, 53, 80), Harike Bird Sanctuary in Punjab (which has Indus River dolphins; proposed waterway no. 15), and several stretches in the Sundarbans Tiger Reserve (no. 91). In some of these stretches, vessels are already plying large distances for transporting cargo, heavy goods and for tourism packages and their ecological impacts on riverine fauna and fisheries need to be assessed urgently. The recent oil spill in the Sundarbans of Bangladesh highlights the problems of inland transport in highly biodiverse and productive estuarine ecosystems.

Ganges River dolphins have the highest abundance for any single Indian state in Bihar, with at least 800 animals in the Ganga River, and about 270-300 in the Gandak River. Similar estimates have been reported by researchers from Patna University and Wildlife Trust of India. The Kosi River is yet to be surveyed properly, but 75 km river stretch surveyed in May 2014 (Kursela to Osraha Thana) was found to have almost 173 animals (unpublished data from field surveys). The proposed intensive development of waterways in these rivers is of serious concern for a very important, high-density population of approx. 1500 Ganges river dolphins occurring in Bihar (estimate subject to negative bias).

In this context in particular, the widespread notion that this Bill has not gone through environmental scrutiny and navigation projects not requiring environmental clearances is also a serious flaw. Alongside protected areas for the conservation of endangered river dolphins, gharials, otters, turtles, and fishes, similarly diverse faunal assemblages continue to persist even in rivers not covered under protected areas. This further emphasizes the need for detailed studies to assess the environmental impact of waterways.

Impacts of pollution (noise, solid wastes, fuel leakage etc.) on river biota need to be assessed urgently for the 5 existing operational waterways in the specific context of inland waterways development and upgradation.

8. Social concerns: Millions of India’s people depend regularly on the rivers for drinking, domestic uses, agriculture, fishing, dairy, pilgrimage, local navigation and other livelihoods. The proposed national waterway development plans show scant regard for a sensitive consideration of how these livelihood and commerce-sustaining activities may be affected by waterways. Some examples are listed below.

Fish breeding habitats are seriously affected by capital dredging operations in the river substrate. Many fishes of high market value require intact substrates to spawn in the main channel of the river, which in turn determines their catch availability to fisher folk. The impact of capital and maintenance dredging on both short- and long-term fish catch needs to be monitored from the point of view of fisheries subsistence economy. Our observations suggest that fish catches fluctuate towards the negative side during and after bouts of capital dredging.

Threats to life: There have been recent reports of pilgrims dying by drowning due to swimming in depths and sediment flows created post-dredging activities by the IWAI in the Ganga River.

Local boat navigation will get impaired by frequent and constant movement of large ships and vessels and needs adequate consideration.

The construction of ports, harbours, barge construction zones and embankments on the river banks can have dire consequences by increasing river erosion rates. River erosion and gradual land reduction have been historically high-strung and pernicious problems in India’s floodplain rivers. The effects of heavy infrastructure might interfere with sediment dynamics and reduce economic outcomes from resource use substantially.

9. Multi-sectoral responses to the Bill: A noteworthy component of Report 223 is the response of the state governments of 18 states to the proposed bill. While most states agree to the Bill in principle, multiple conditions are discussed with respect to state-specific details of river conditions (e.g. in the response by Jharkhand). The responses of Kerala and Madhya Pradesh, two large states which oppose the bill by providing well-grounded and ecologically sensitive responses, are important to consider in discussions on balancing waterways development with social and ecological needs of water. Extremely important issues are raised by both state responses, backed by detailed appraisals, and these pertain to 1) existing structures to harness water for various basic needs, 2) threats of pollution and saline ingression into waterways, 3) impacts of dredging and solid wastes, 4) impacts on sanctuaries for wild species, fish breeding habitats and biodiversity such as crocodiles and river dolphins (with particular reference to the National Chambal Sanctuary), 5) poor water availability in rivers both from natural seasonal fluctuations, and more importantly, dams and barrages that already exist. The response of the Bihar government is crucially important in the context of this document. Bihar has given a conditional agreement to the National Waterways Bill (Pt. 26.3). Bihar’s response is important to consider as it brings up multiple relevant issues. The conditions include: 1) waterways should not alter or affect flood levels, natural surface levels, and submergence area, 2) a clear negative response to construction of new barrages based on the highly destructive experience of the Farakka barrages constructed downstream of Bihar’s Ganga River in 1975, 3) the correct recognition that large-scale dredging will alter the near-natural sediment transport loads in rivers such as the Gandak, Kosi and Mahananda, leading to additional load on the Ganga River, 4) potential interferences with irrigation and drinking water needs, and 5) a detailed silt conservation and management policy and 5) ensuring that no impacts are felt on state entitlements to water within and across the state as per existing water-sharing agreements.

The statement by NTPC representatives (Report 223, Pt. 19.3) that current one-way water-based cargo transport is only marginally cheaper than railways is a significant one. We believe that environmental regulations on ship design and movement rates will necessitate a cap on the proposed upscaling of waterways transport by making it both-ways (e.g. by carrying fly-ash wastes to dumping sites, Pt. 20.2 of Report 223). We believe that this proposed measure might be especially hazardous to river water quality and natural sediment load.

Doubts on the feasibility of the project at the scale in which it is conceived have been raised, notably, from multiple industrial quarters and by the Indian Chamber of Commerce (these responses are briefly summarized above in Pt. 5).

Concerns about the impacts of waterways development have also been raised by pilgrimage authorities and temple management boards across the Ganga River.http://www.thehindu.com/news/national/inland-waterways-project-will-kill-ganga/article6289042.ece

Mishra and Hussain (2012) extend this argument to considerations for transboundary water-sharing, of specific importance for existing water treaties with Bangladesh and Nepal.

10. Conflict with other objectives of the Indian Government: The earlier points have expressed concerns about the pollution impacts of national waterways. If zero-pollution shipping models are not ushered in, the waterways bill proves directly antithetical and in conflict with the Clean Ganga Mission of the Central Government, as also for other river clean-ups planned in the future. Further, its proposed consonance with other potentially disastrous projects such as river interlinking, can add to cumulative impacts on river ecology, there is no attempt to acknowledge, understand or assess such impacts. The cost-effectiveness argument for inland waterways advanced by the Ministry is based on its low infrastructure investments. However, IWT projects appear cost-effective because India’s riverine environments and ecology are systematically undervalued by the Ministry of Environment, Forests and Climate Change, similar to other arms of the Government. Moreover, the costs have to be seen along with the high costs of continuous dredging, loading and unloading at both ends of waterways and trasportation to and from such points from the origin and destinations.

11. Possibilities for regulation and downscaling of impacts: Forms of adaptive management and regulation of vessel traffic, dependent on dry-season river hydrological observations, should form the benchmark for environmental management guidelines and mitigation strategies for inland waterways. The priority to ensure adequate water availability across India both for snowmelt-fed or dryland rivers as per their seasonal fluctuations (dry to wet season) is foremost in this regard. Even if flows are maintained at levels that resemble ecological dynamics and navigation operations planned accordingly, navigation schedules will need to be adapted seasonally as per variations in flooding extent, dry-season ecological flows, and rising and falling discharge volumes. The Bill focusses on maximizing water transport infrastructure but does not suggest any regulatory mechanisms for sustainable management. The Government of India’s Ministry of Transport, Inland Waterways Authority of India (IWAI), National Mission for Clean Ganga, National Ganga River Basin Authority, the Ministry for Water Resources, River Development and Ganga Rejuvenation and the Union Ministry of Environment, Forests and Climate Change, along with state governments need to seriously consider strict regulation and downscaling for managing inland water transport (IWT) with necessary environmental safeguards and guidelines. In fact, a detailed ‘Waterways Classification’ exercise has been demanded (http://indianexpress.com/article/india/india-others/inland-waterways-policy-dredging-through-the-silt/) for efficient management of IWT by the head of the IWAI already. Cumulative Environmental Impact Assessments (phase to phase) for IWT development are critically needed to identify the scope for case-by-case regulations, environmental prescriptions and guidelines, monitoring, compliance and enforcement of caps on ship traffic as per seasonal variations. Regulatory and adaptive management approaches will need to include: a) restricting allowed upper limits of bulk cargo only (but not hazardous goods), season-wise; with dry-season movement to be completely restricted if water availability naturally does not allow navigation securely; b) ship sizes for horizontal and vertical clearances (Pt. 15.2 (i,ii,iii) of Report 223) must be specified only in tune with natural availability of water, and NOT by augmented availability through interlinking, inter-basin or canal transfers, dams/barrages, or repeated dredging; c) considerations for ship design to make them zero-pollution/discharge and ecologically benign (e.g. with engine noise reduction devices), and d) cap on simultaneous plying of both cargo and tourist ship traffic, e) tourist and cargo vessels must be mandated to pay substantially for the estimated costs from ecological impacts on the river. Further, mechanisms need to be instituted towards restoration of river-floodplain habitats such as islands, point bars etc. (important for seasonal farmers, as well as nesting birds, turtles, otters, and crocodilians) through effective silt protection and conservation mechanisms. The high frequency of even ongoing dredging operations by the IWAI points to natural constraints imposed on navigation by river sediment and silt, which are both highly essential for agricultural and fisheries productivity. Dredging operations alter depositional and erosional processes and affect these systems. Hence a comprehensive and ecologically sensitive river silt protection, restoration and management policy is essential. As past interventions have amply indicated (e.g. embankments) capital dredging impacts need to be mitigated with strict policies to ensure the same.

12. Despite these important insights and discussion points proposed in the Report 223, it falls short of a critical revisiting of the scale and scope of the conceived national waterways bill. Problematically, the Report seems to uphold the suggestion that the waterways should be in consonance with the River Interlinking Plan (though this plan has no sanctions from any of the states, those neighbours sharing river basins concerned or the statutory authorities) (Pt. 18 (iii)) sharply contrasts with the concerns expressed in the same report about water scarcity, ecology, and dry bed conditions for most rivers included in the Schedule (ref. Section 2) of the National Waterways Bill. This appears as a latent and somewhat uncritical acceptance of both the river interlinking and waterways bills and the Report’s tone remains in broad agreement with the intent of the Bill, in an unquestioning manner, of the status quo (e.g., the impacts of the River Interlinking Plan; Lal et al., 2015).

Conclusion: The management of existing waterways remains wanting on several counts. The aforementioned discussion highlight that the current ecological impacts of dredging in waterways are already significant. Given this background, the scarcity of water available in our rivers, scenarios of extreme climate-induced drought and flood events, river erosion, and declining agriculture and fisheries productivity, we believe that the proposed scale of upgradation of inland waterways in India is not only unsustainable but also highly destructive. In conclusion, efforts are needed to strike balances between IWT and numerous other more pressing water needs for people and ecology. The National Waterways Bill thus represents a formidable challenge to our planning as well as our ethic. After a long history of damaging hydrological alterations, riverine control, and social injustices and disasters, the National Waterways Bill’s implementation does not show that something has been learned from a troubled past. In the current circumstances, achieving potential utilization of waterways without impairing ecological and hydrological dynamics, productivity, biodiversity, and social dependencies, environmental regulations and safeguards are critical for sustaining the life of the river basins of India does not seem likely. The bill in present form is not likely to be accepted at least by some concerned states and the proposed waterways are not likely to be viable.

Nachiket Kelkar (rainmaker.nsk@gmail.com)


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Dolah, R.F.V., Calder, D.R., Knott, D.M. (1984) Effects of dredging and open water disposal on benthic macro-invertebrates in a South Carolina estuary, USA. Estuaries, 7, 28–37.

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Koehn, J.D. (2004) Carp (Cyprinus carpio) as a powerful invader in Australian waterways.Freshwater Biology, 49, 882–894.

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Travassos, M., Vianna, M. (2012) Impact on a fish assemblage of the maintenance dredging of a navigation channel in a tropical coastal ecosystem. Brazilian Journal of Oceanography, 60, 25–32.

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