The Karuk Tribe along with allies in the commercial and recreational fishing communities are calling on Governor Schwarzenegger to restrict the controversial gold mining technique known as suction dredge mining. As we are in the midst of the worst fisheries collapse in California history all groups impacting our fisheries must be called on to make sacrifices.
According to Brian Stranko, CEO of California Trout, “In April, the state and federal government took unprecedented emergency actions to completely close California’s coast to recreational and commercial salmon fishing, something that is causing severe economic harm to businesses and communities. This is why it is inappropriate and unacceptable for state government to allow recreational suction dredge mining operations to continue to harm fish, particularly endangered species like coho salmon.”
Suction dredges are powered by gas or diesel engines that are mounted on floating pontoons in the river. Attached to the engine is a powerful vacuum hose which the dredger uses to suction up the gravel and sand (sediment) from the bottom of the river. The stream bed passes through a sluice box where heavier gold particles can settle into a series of riffles. The rest of the gravel and potentially toxic sediment is simply dumped back into the river. Depending on size, location and density of these machines they can turn a clear running mountain stream or river segment into a murky watercourse unfit for swimming.
Dredging disturbs spawning gravels and kills salmon eggs and immature lamprey that reside in the gravel for up to seven years before maturing. In a system like the Klamath where salmon can be stressed due to poor water quality, having a dredge running in the middle of the stream affects fish’s ability to reach their spawning grounds.
It is important to note that there is a lot of mercury settled on the bottom of these rivers from gold smelting operations from the 1800’s. Dredging reintroduces mercury to the stream creating a toxic hazard for fish and people. The call for a moratorium on dredging would not prevent miners from mining their claims with other less destructive techniques such as panning and metal detection.
Given the severity of the fisheries crisis, we hope that the Governor will agree to a provision added by the Legislature to the 2008 Budget Bill that would establish a temporary moratorium on suction dredge mining in areas that represent the most important habitat for salmon and trout while the Department of Fish and Game revises (DFG) its regulations in compliance with a 2006 court order.
For the governor, it should be an easy choice. There are over 2.2 million Californians purchase fishing licenses every year while only 3,000 suction dredge permits issued. This means that in California, fish are more valuable than gold.
According to the American Sportfishing Association, licensed anglers in California contribute $4.9 billion annually to the state’s economy. This includes 43,000 jobs amounting to $1.3 billion in wages and salaries annually. Commercial salmon fishing contributes $255 million and 2,263 jobs to the California economy.
For the Karuk Tribe the threat is even greater. According to Karuk Vice-chairman Leaf Hillman, “Suction dredge mining is nothing more than recreational genocide. The first gold rush killed more than half our people in 10 years. This modern gold rush continues to kill our fish and our culture.”
Currently, Tribal members are unable to harvest enough salmon to meet basic subsistence need or to provide for ceremonies. At the same time miners are allowed to rip and tear our river bottoms to shreds.
In coming weeks the Governor will have to consider the groups’ proposal to limit mining as part of the 2008 Budget Bill to provide interim safeguards while DFG conducts a two-year effort to overhaul statewide regulations covering instream mining.