Suckers for gold

  • Suction dredgers working on the Klamath River near Happy Camp, California, in 2009, before the state halted the practice.

    AP Photo/Jeff Barnard

Suction dredging for gold is basically a recreational activity. Required equipment: gasoline-powered dredge, sluice box, wetsuit and scuba gear. With a 4-inch-diameter hose, you vacuum up what's on the bottom of rivers – stuff like gravel, woody debris, plants, mussels, snails, insect larvae, crayfish, frogs, salamanders, fish eggs, fish fry and, occasionally, gold.

I have it from the suction dredgers that their hobby is an elixir for whatever ails rivers. For example, the president of Oregon's Waldo Mining District, Tom Kitchar, has informed me that by kicking up plumes of muck, dredgers actually save fish.

"More young fish survive in slightly dirty water than clear water simply because they can hide better," he declared.

And California suction dredger Ron Holt offers this defense: "We loosen impacted gravel beds for optimum spawning, and … the depressions we leave provide cold water resting spots for migrating fish, thus relieving gill rot. Every day that we come back to our mining spots our friends (the fish) are waiting for us."

What's more, all dredgers I've consulted claim their machines rid rivers of trash, lead sinkers and mercury. But somehow no aquatic biologist I've spoken with or heard about suggests that ripping out streambeds is anything but an ecological disaster.

"Is churning up hundreds of square meters of river bottom worth the 3.4 ounces of gold the average dredger collects in a season?" inquires fisheries professor Peter Moyle, of the University of California at Davis. Moyle does fish counts with a mask and snorkel, and he reports a striking lack of fish in dredged waters.

So suction dredgers are feeling unloved and unappreciated. And they're fighting back on mining websites with posts such as: "THIS IS REALLY IMPORTANT –  they (dredge-equipment supplier Gold Pan California) want you to sign in as Joe Public and NOT AS MINERS. Create a name like "Naturelover2" or "Fielddreamer" or "Soccermom" or something that makes you sound like you are the public and not miners. They want you to make pro-miner comments."

Despite the good press dredgers are giving themselves, they're being evicted from rivers across the West and even as far east as Maine, where this April, the Legislature overrode the veto of dredger fan Gov. Paul LePage to pass "LD 1671, An Act to Prohibit Motorized Recreational Gold Prospecting in Brook Trout and Salmon Habitat."

Also in April, the Environmental Protection Agency – aiming to save Idaho's threatened and endangered salmon, steelhead, white sturgeon and bull trout – implemented a permit system by which it is disinviting dredgers from the few rivers they haven't already been banned from by the state or the U.S. Forest Service.

Oregon has enacted a law that sharply reduces the number of dredging permits and will place a five-year moratorium on the hobby if the Legislature fails to adopt the effective protections for trout and salmon hatched by Gov. John Kitzhaber's office. California has banned dredging until it can implement a strict permitting process. So dredgers from Idaho, Oregon and California are pouring into Washington state. But legislation to kick them out of sensitive water is in the works there, too.

All this has made dredgers cross with those who oppose what the dredgers call their "mining rights" on public water. For instance, a poster on the Oregon Gold Hunters' website proposes that the ubiquitous opposition be eliminated with "high powered rifles."

Kitchar attributes public alarm about dredging to environmentalists who are plotting "to ban all mining" and anglers who "blame everyone but themselves for a lack of fish."

Let's take dredgers at their word that they cart away all the trash and sinkers they suck up. They also recover and sell a lot of the mercury. Some is natural, some left from the 19th century, when miners dumped it into sluice boxes because it stuck to and captured small flecks of gold. Mercury is relatively benign in its inorganic form, especially when sequestered in a streambed. But when dredgers stir it up and it gets away from them, as some always does, it's apt to be converted to methylmercury, a deadly neurotoxin that bioaccumulates like DDT.

As an angler who eats fish and feeds fish to my extended family, that unsettles me. And, while I'm encouraged by all the recent progress, I'd still like an answer to this question posed by Cascadia Wildlands director Bob Ferris: "Why are we letting a small, but very vocal and pugnacious minority … tear up gravel bars and riffles in waterways that have been closed to fishing because their salmon populations are too vulnerable to allow that disturbance?"

Ted Williams writes for Fly Rod & Reel magazine.

Dale Lockwood
Dale Lockwood Subscriber
Jun 09, 2014 08:37 PM
As a retired Fisheries biologist,I have seen where work in a lake or stream bottom,the slightest little silt-dirt film on eggs will kill almost 100% of the fish eggs.
Stephen Terry
Stephen Terry
Jun 10, 2014 04:05 PM
Here's the thing that I find disturbing about both sides of the issue. I live in Downieville, Ca and for the vast majority of my life I've fished the N. Yuba River and for 30 years even with dredging happening on the river the fishing has been fantastic with so many native trout you'd hardly believe it. Now that dredging on a river which has no salmon or steelhead on it has been outlawed, the fishing has actually gotten worse. Explain to me why the fishing is worse and not better if as you say, dredgers don't help to clear away debris from gravel bottoms and actually help with spawning as dredging has always been illegal during trout spawning season anyway?
Janna Caughron
Janna Caughron Subscriber
Jun 10, 2014 09:50 PM
Back in the late 1970s and early 1980s we kayaked the North Fork of the American River in California, frequently running the Chamberlain Falls section. When we first started to kayak the river there were no gold dredgers and one could clearly see the cobbles on the river bottom even in the deep pools. By the mid 1990s after the dredgers had their way, the formerly crystal clear water was green and one could not see even a few feet down. To answer Mr. Terry, I would suggest the cumulative effects of dredging have ruined the North Fork of the Yuba for fishing, and the last 3 years of drought have not helped. We used to run the North Fork of the Yuba also back in the 1980s, and back then it was a spectacularly clear water river. Not dredging during spawning season may help save the eggs, but the fry and juvenile fish, amphibians and the insects they eat, all need cold, clean, clear water to grow into adults.

One day while paddling the Chili Bar run on the South Fork of the American - a VERY popular rafting and kayaking run, a dredger with apparently low IQ set up his sluice directly in the main drop of S-turn rapid -- right where any raft, kayak, rubber ducky, whatever had to go. He was very distraught that boaters kept knocking his sluice down. Vacuums only belong in buildings, certainly not on river bottoms.

When one recreates on the rivers it is often to enjoy the quiet or noise of the river and the riparian wildlife and habitat. I can't begin to count the number of times stinking noisy gasoline driven dredges have ruined an otherwise lovely wilderness experience. The dredgers have destroyed beautiful crystal clear rivers and the wildlife that used to inhabit them. They leave the river banks littered with all sorts of trash, - tie ropes across the rivers, and do not practice any type of "leave no trace" skills. I hope there is a world wide ban on the use of dredges for mining rivers for anything. When one considers the environmental degradation caused by the dredging, the greed which rationalizes a payoff of a few specks of gold is simply appalling.

Lisa  Garrison
Lisa Garrison
Jun 18, 2014 03:15 PM
I do environmental remediation work in surface mining. However, I don't know much about suction dredging for gold in rivers. I am curious how much turbidity it causes, the mobilization of mercury and reaction to a more toxic state, and general quantitative numbers and data that would go well with counteracting the argument that it benefits rivers and aquatic life. I think most of us can easily disagree with the statement, generally, made by Mr. Kitchar, that more sediment helps so fish can "hide". Good thing states are starting to crack down on this! I am also wondering if there would be other heavy metals to worry about. Anyone know a good place to find this information, or is anyone well informed on it?