Within 10 years after the arrival of the first miners, half of the Karuk population died from violence, disease or starvation. After the easy gold was found and the practice of hydraulic mining was banned in 1884, most of the miners left. They left behind a dramatically altered landscape, a crippled fishery, and lots of mercury.
Today, a new breed of miner has returned to the Klamath and many other California watersheds. Instead of mules, this new wave of miners ride in SUVs towing behind them large machines called suction dredges. These weekend warriors mine for fun, using large suction pumps connected to a hose up to 8 inches in diameter. The miner snorkels along the bottom of the river sucking up gravel, sand and the old mercury, and leaving behind a dramatically altered streambed. The suctioned material is run through a sluice box where the gold is collected. Everything else is simply discharged back into the river.
Permission to engage in this unique and twisted form of recreation is granted by the California Department of Fish and Game – the guys that are supposed to be protecting our fishery resources. Since there are few miners and the permits are cheap, taxpayer funds are needed to fund the program. This means that in the midst of a financial and fisheries crisis, we taxpayers are subsidizing the destruction of our own fishery so that a bunch of guys can rip and tear our river bottoms to shreds for fun.
However there is a catch – the whole program is illegal. Fish and Game Code Section 5653 authorizes the Department of Fish and Game to issue permits for in-stream suction dredge mining only after it has determined that the operation will not be deleterious to fish.
In 2006, the department itself admitted in sworn statements that suction dredge mining in the Klamath, Scott and Salmon river watersheds under existing regulations was having a deleterious effect on endangered coho salmon and therefore the department was not in compliance with Section 5653.
In addition, the department's own regulations require suction dredge permit holders to be in compliance with federal law. Suction dredging is an activity regulated by the federal Clean Water Act. No discharge permit has ever been issued under the Clean Water Act, either on a general or individual basis, for suction dredging activities in this state. This means that all permit holders are in violation of federal law. Still, Fish and Game fails to enforce this condition and continues to issue permits with full knowledge of this fact.
Recently, the Karuk Tribe and others pointed out these facts during the confirmation hearing of Don Koch, Gov. Arnold Schwarzenegger's pick for director of Fish and Game. In response, the Senate Rules Committee decided not to act on Koch's nomination until it could learn more about this issue.
In retaliation, a mining club on the Klamath called the New 49ers has petitioned the department to close the Karuk Tribe's last remaining dip net site at Ishi Pishi Falls.
That's right, the guys in the SUVs that mine for fun are fighting to stop the Karuk Tribe from conducting a ceremonial dip net fishery that has been practiced since the beginning of time. Due to the poor runs of salmon left on the Klamath, the tribe is lucky to harvest 200 fish a year, which falls far short of meeting our subsistence and ceremonial needs. The few fish we do harvest are consumed locally by tribal members in their homes and during ceremonies – none are sold commercially.
Miners already have taken so much from the Karuk people. Today they continue their destruction of California's fisheries, and they seek to end a way of life that stretches back to the beginning of time. Now it is time for the California Department of Fish and Game and Koch to stop defending miners by running an illegal suction dredge program and instead defend the fish for the benefit of not only the Karuk people, but all Californians.