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.

Note: the opinions expressed in this column are those of the writer and do not necessarily reflect those of High Country News, its board or staff. If you'd like to share an opinion piece of your own, please write Betsy Marston at

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?
dan bosch
dan bosch
Mar 26, 2015 10:17 PM
First i want to point out that this is an agenda-ized subject.. either you are for or against dredging... most likely there is nothing anyone can say to change your mind.. that being said i DO have a few things to say..
I cannot speak for others who live in other areas... or recreate on other rivers...
I will point out though that you can dredge responsibly or irresponsibly. Just like ANY activity period. Dredging can be beneficial to fish. First of all it DOES create deeper pools of cooler water which keep fish safe from predatory birds. The cooler temps actually help the water to have MORE oxygen by helping to reduce the amount of algae that grows due to "environmentally friendly" people who have nitrogen runoff from their riverside properties that include gardens which grow a lot of veggies that may never get used and nitrates from septic run-off.. Bacterial growth in the water is what causes a greenish tint.. Sediment will make the water brown... You CANNOT blame green water on dredgers... Educate yourself... People who don't dredge but just sluice box help to keep riffles running fast since you need fast running water to operate them properly with a 1" drop per foot of sluice box being used... So far we have deeper, more oxygenated faster flowing waters occurring due to dredging.. This helps rivers to wash themselves out.
Next we have the FACT that you cannot dredge during spawning season, so silt from turbidity caused by dredgers DOES NOT KILL SALMON EGGS.. YOU CANNOT DREDGE IN A RIVER WHILE SALMON ARE SPAWNING.. the river is to swift and to high of a volume... When the eggs hatch the smolt love to hang out in the turbidity clound AND EAT the organic material that is being dispersed... This DOES NOT AID IN HIDING, but does give them a buffet every day you work..
 Dredging with a recreational dredge actually feeds the fish.
 Next i want to point out that some people may complain about gasoline pollution.. At least on the Rogue River (wild and scenic river) there are at least four JET BOAT companies that run their boats up and down the riffles where fish ARE spawning WHILE they are spawning.. UP TO FIVE TIMES A DAY PER COMPANY..The impeller jets will suck up salmon and mince them and spit them out the back of the engine!!!! On top of that the jet boats are digging up the salmon eggs that have been laid by spawning salmon!!!! Also, the super high RPM's of the jet boats screaming through the water sound like the seventh level of HELL if you happen to be underwater.. This has to be very damaging to the river's fish population especially since the jet boats have five to six mile runs up and down the river.... They also (by means of being an impeller motor) leak oil and gas directly into the water.. During the Boatnik parade in Grants Pass OR they have jetboat races for two days straight ON TOP of all the tourists. Just look up Hellgate Canyon Jetboat trips.. It seems the same environmentally minded individuals who are mad at dredgers have NEVER (I have lived here at least 35 years) complained about this.. They actually take the boat trips a lot... This is a horribly wretched double standard and makes NO sense.
These people are NOT as concerned about keeping the rivers here wild and scenic as they pretend to be.. AND the dredging here is not as bad as it is made out to be.. The whole East Fork of the Illinois River has already been churned over from Eight Dollar to it's headwaters... The environmentalists don't even realize this because the river is STILL so beautiful.. The only reason the Illinois river is in trouble now is because of the thousands of over-fertilized, over- watered marijuana plants sucking the surface water table dry, the excess nutrients from gardening and weed growing running off into the water, and the lower water level itself (caused by all the people moving in to farm weed, or grow fields of hay they let bleach in the sun into straw because they dont really need the straw, they just want to keep their water rights..

Personally I feel that water conservation is more important than limiting it's use.. What is worse for salmon in the long run...? Having water that someone has dredged a bit in, or having no water at all.... Or water that is sapped of oxygen from all the Cyanobacteria....

I think a lot of people have their heads screwed on wrong, or not at all..

phosphorous from gardens + slow moving water+shallow warm water=death to all that's in the water....

dredging as i said makes cooler water, deeper water, and faster running water... if you haven't dredged you don't know what you are talking.. ANYTHING you say is just uneducated opinion...period...