Suckers for gold: recreational dredgers can wreck stream beds


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 is a contributor to Writers on the Range, a service of High Country News. He 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

Carolyn Hopper
Carolyn Hopper
Jun 03, 2014 04:36 PM
Pugnacious minorities are nothing new--unfortunately. However as the Sage Brush Rebellion finds new life or resurfacing life in the West,
it needs to be kept in check - on every issue where land and all it supports could be impacted by the few hornets. Sad to say this extends to every sector, from dog walkers who hate putting their dogs on leashes on trails where "dogs must be on leashes" is clearly posted or who abhor safety rules like "cell phone free zone" while driving. I think they all have prickles on their skin like cactus. In this case I say "stop messing with rivers with dredging!" Those rivers belong to everyone, not just you. Where's the website? I think I'll post on it too...
Mellisa Fernandez
Mellisa Fernandez
Sep 01, 2015 08:30 PM
Since when does a dredging operation hamper your ability to be on and in the river? I'd like a specific instance, please. Time and date would help. If you know the names of the miners, I'd like that too.
Mellisa Fernandez
Mellisa Fernandez
Sep 01, 2015 08:19 PM
Wow, the misinformation in the opinion piece is epic! I didn't know that, as a miner I'm supposed to make up a fake name and pretend to care.
For information, go to The info there is applicable in CA, OR, WA, and other states.
The writer of this piece has opinions not based on facts but rather on emotions and lies.
My name is Mellisa Fernandez, not FluffyRiverLover, but I do love the river where I prospect. I clean up trash and remove lead. There is little or no mercury in the river where I pan (can't dredge). If dredging wasn't illegal, I would not be a 'recreational miner'. I would be paying my mortgage and other bills, putting money into savings, and going on more vacations. Before the ban, 1 to 2 ounces of gold in 12 hours of dredging was being pulled out of the river where I currently pan.
People like the author of this opinion piece are believing the lies of lying liars.
Don't believe his crap. He's ignorant. I'd hate to call him stupid.
Mellisa Fernandez
Mellisa Fernandez
Sep 01, 2015 08:37 PM
On the mercury issue: Dredges remove 98% of elemental mercury. The 2% left over finds it almost impossible to methylize in a river or stream (too much movement, sunlight, oxygen).
Also, please read Dr. Nicholas Ralston's findings on methylmercury poisoning in fish. His studies find that in almost every species of fish, the natural selenium in the fish neutralizes the mercury completely with more Se left over.
In fact, his studies show that where people were told not to eat fish because of possible mercury poisoning, women and young children suffered from selenium deficiencies, causing lifelong problems for the babies and children. Brains need Se while they are developing and fish is a great natural source. Developing countries are hurt the most by the bad advice.
Species of fish with low selenium and high mercury (few and far between) need to be either avoided OR the person eating them can do something as simple as TAKE A PILL. Seriously, take a supplement containing selenium and you will be fine.
Did I explain myself clearly enough? If not, ask me to explain myself again, in simple terms. I'll see if I can draw out a diagram or pretty picture.
Brad Jones
Brad Jones
Dec 24, 2015 12:16 PM
I have spoken to Dr. Nicholas Ralston at length about the mercury myths that the environmental extremists keep spreading. You are 100 correct Mellissa! Unfortunately, there is too much money being made by these green lobby groups through sue-and-settle lawsuits and collusion with government agencies, who have an agenda to shut down public access to public lands and lock up the mineral resources. They call it “rewilding,” and what it means is closing roads and trails to the back country. So, unless fishermen want to fly-in (aviation is not allowed over Wilderness Areas) they should start listening to the miners, who have a congressionally granted right to keep roads and trails that lead to mining claims open.
Frank matyus
Frank matyus
Sep 02, 2015 05:28 AM
this link below, shows the proper use of the term introduction of materials, notice left of this picture there is a pile of dirt, forign material, that is a State and Federal violation,
Sad, that High Country News can be a leader amoung those that want to presever our public water ways if only they would allow a professional to explain the benefits of a suction dredging, but i am afraid this news source is PREJUDICE as many others
i would like to compare the following, Blue Lead Mine permit process facing a lot of protest, Sierra Fund and Nevada irratation District, no protest, seeking tax payer monies ( millions)to operate a suction dredge on the Combie Res, Equipment to be used on both projects are very much the same, so i ask, why is a bulldozer? generator at the Blue Lead mine any Differant then the bulldozer/generator at the Combie project?[…]/
Brad Jones
Brad Jones
Dec 24, 2015 12:19 PM
Dredging does not harm fish, experts say: http://www.goldprospectors.[…]0%99t-harm-fish-experts-say
Brad Jones
Brad Jones
Dec 24, 2015 12:21 PM
Brad Jones
Brad Jones
Dec 24, 2015 01:09 PM
Don’t anglers kill fish? This is the pot calling the kettle black, only worse, because dredging does not harm fish. Dredging loosens the hard-packed gravels which fish need to spawn and creates refugia for fish. Mercury comes from cinnabar, a mineral that occurs naturally and mercury (like gold) works its way down from the cinnabar deposits in the mountains into the stream beds through wind and water erosion. To understand the effects of mercury, you have to know something about its relationship with selenium and biology.