Planning for the extraction of aggregates is typically dealt with at a case to case basis, without assessing environmental impacts strategically. In this study we assess the impact of sand mining in Poyang Lake, where dredging began in 2001 after sand mining in the Yangtze River had been banned. In April 2008 concern over the impact on the biodiversity led to a ban on sand mining in Poyang Lake until further plans could be developed. Planning will require consideration of both sand extraction in relation to available sediment resources and also environmental impacts within the context of future demand for sand in the lower Yangtze Valley. We used pairs of near-infrared (NIR) Aster satellite imagery to estimate the number of vessels leaving the lake. Based on this we calculated a rate of sand extraction of 236 million m3 year−1 in 2005–2006. This corresponds to 9% of the total Chinese demand for sand. It qualifies Poyang Lake as probably the largest sand mining operation in the world. It also indicates that sand extraction currently dominates the sediment balance of the lower Yangtze River. A positive relation between demand for sand and GDP, revealed by historic data from the USA, suggests that the current per capita demand for sand in China might increase in the near future from 2 to 4 m3 year−1. We review various environmental impacts and question whether it will be possible to preserve the rich biodiversity of the lake, while continuing at the same time satisfying the increasing Chinese demand for sand. Finally we review alternative options for sand mining, in order to relieve the pressure from the Poyang Lake ecosystem.