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.