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Editorial: Time for new rules on suction mining

Jan. 20, 2009 Sacramento Bee
It's not news that salmon populations have declined drastically. Last year, regulators voted to ban all salmon fishing along the Pacific coast of California and Oregon. Their actions wiped out the livelihoods of thousands of commercial fishermen, fish processors and charter boat operators.

The threat facing salmon is so dire that regulators are expected to continue the 2008 salmon fishing ban through 2009.

So it seems incredible that in the creeks and tributaries of the state's major rivers where salmon lay their eggs, suction gold mine dredging continues under regulations that are now 15 years old. These rules are badly out of date and inadequate to protect dwindling number of fish.

Recreational miners use giant dredges to vacuum the creeks and river beds, sucking up tons of sand and rocks in search of tiny flecks of gold. In the process, state fish and game experts say, they destroy precious salmon spawning grounds and kill salmon eggs, young salmon, trout and sturgeon.

The California Department of Fish and Game has the power to stop the damaging practice. It should do so immediately.

The Karuk Indian Tribe and a handful of conservation groups, including California Trout and the Sierra Fund, have petitioned DFG to issue emergency regulations to limit when and where dredging can be done on the Klamath River, its tributaries and five other streams in the Sierra including the north fork of the American River near Auburn.

In 2006, the Karuks sued Fish and Game to force the department to overhaul its suction dredging rules. Pushed by suction dredge miners, the courts ordered the department to complete a California Environmental Quality Act review before it acted. That review was supposed to take 18 months and be completed by July 2008.

The department has already missed its deadline by 6 months and the review hasn't even begun. Meanwhile, harmful dredging continues.

As the petition seeking the emergency actions makes clear, the fish are in peril. A 2008 federal report documented a 73 percent decline in coho salmon returning to spawning grounds in California between 2004 and 2007. Another study concluded the coho "was in danger of extinction."

Suction dredge gold miners claim that their activities improve the spawning grounds, especially on streams where dams have impeded the flow of water allowing silt to build up. They say global warming, not suction mining, has harmed the fishery. But fish experts both inside and outside the department disagree.

At a minimum it will take the department two more years of study before the CEQA review is completed and rules can be updated to protect fish. That is two more years of status quo dredging while endangered salmon populations continue to dwindle.

The Department of Fish and Game should act before that trend becomes irreversible.


  • Ron_Bryant wrote on 01/22/2009 03:54:52 PM:

    I am a 66 year old male who owned a 4" dredge. If Im lucky, I use it 10_20 hours a year. I am also a avid fly fisherman and the sec. of a fly fishing club. I LOVE trout and salmon. I KNOW tat my dredging only aids the fish. Your artical talks of distroying the eggs and fingerlings in the gravel beds. If you were objective enough to look, you would find that the majority of the river beds are covered with the top soil which has washed into the river due to fire and population developers. The fish eggs and fingerlings have no were to take refuge from the adult fish.Our dredging removes the over burden and replaces the gravel. Which gives the eggs and smull fish a place to be protected untill they are large enough to servive. Ron Bryant 805-709-2987

  • HarleyKid1 wrote on 01/22/2009 01:01:03 PM:

    The reporter who wrote this editorial should get more than one opinion on this subject be for running the report. I’m a small recreational miner and I belong to three mining association and love looking for gold. I have five dredges starting from a 2” to a 6” dredge, I buy a dredging permit every year and fallow the entire rule that the DFG and USF serves put out there, as well as the rules of the three mining association I belong to. If the person that reported on this would have watched some one dredging they would see for them self that we do not destroy precious salmon spawning grounds and kill salmon eggs, young salmon, tout and sturgeon or any thing else because DFG only lets us dredge at a time when it is ok to do so. No body says any thing about how mush Led, Mercury, and other things like removing trash from the USF camp grounds and properties that belongs to all Americans. Harley Kid

  • ecrosby wrote on 01/21/2009 09:47:50 AM:

    I respectfully have to disagree with your assertions. Lawsuits are brought against agencies for failure to act and are a last resort. All lawsuits are preceded with a filing of a intent to litigate which allows for the two parties to attempt a settlement. If these negotiations fail and either party believes it can prevail in court than it proceeds. If for example the agency prevails than no legal fees are paid to the party filing the lawsuit. Actually CDFG's admission in court triggered the EIR review, which by the way from the article is already late in coming hence the petition limit, not ban instream mining until the EIR is complete. I am also curious where you get your information regarding this same group tried to prevent money for the EIR.



Dave McCracken's response Opinion to the Sac Bee article on suction dredging.
President of The New 49'ers Prospecting Association

The Sacramento Bee may find it incredible that recreational gold dredging occurs under regulations that are now 15 years old; but had it bothered to review those regulations, and the comprehensive 1994 Environmental Impact Report (EIR) used to generate them, it might have realized that the regulations flatly forbid gold dredging when salmon eggs or fry may be present in the riverbeds. While many things have changed significantly in the last 15 years, the spawning timing of California’s salmon populations is not one of them; and the regulations are every bit as protective now as they were when adopted. And as the 1994 EIR recognized, dredging riverbeds frequently improves the habitat for spawning—a conclusion by the Department of Fish & Game (DFG), not of the miners.

The Karuk Tribe sued DFG on the theory that the listing of coho salmon as endangered constituted new information requiring a new EIR.  But they did not seek any court injunction against continued mining, because the Tribe would have been required to present some demonstrable evidence of actual harm to fish. The Tribe could not and cannot prove that so much as a single fish has ever been killed by suction gold mining under the present regulations, and presumably did not want to highlight its own continued killing of salmon at Ishi-Pishi Falls, notwithstanding its claims of a fisheries emergency.

Ocean salmon seasons may be closed due to poor runs on the Sacramento River, but those problems have nothing to do with gold mining on the Klamath, American, and other California Rivers.

In lieu of evidence of harm, anti-mining activists advance speculative opinions of biologists such as Professor Peter Moyle, who told USA Today during the Karuk litigation that while research trying to prove harm from gold dredging was “inconclusive” (the harmlessness of an activity cannot be measured), the “burden of proof” should be on miners to prove harmlessness. Because "harmlessness" cannot be proven, this standard recommended by Professor Moyle would undermine any and every industry with America, if adopted.  Some biologists now routinely deem any human activity anywhere in the wild to be “harmful”, without bothering to gather evidence of actual effects on wildlife populations.
California can scarcely afford to shut down whole fields of human endeavor because the humans involved cannot prove harmlessness to the satisfaction of special interest groups that put fish before people.  It is especially irrational to close down activities with proven benefits to the environment. The Sacramento Bee injures itself and all Californians by misusing its editorial page as an echo chamber for the anti-everything crowd without bothering to do what newspapers used to do: investigate to find the facts.

The reporter who wrote this editorial called me personally about her story before it was printed, and I told her all of these things.  I also told her that nothing has changed in the way gold dredgers are doing things since the 1994 EIR was completed.  I told her that EIR carefully addressed every environmental factor which the Karuks and anti-mining activists are raising in their request for Emergency Regulations.  I told her the Karuk Tribe and State of California has completely ignored all of our requests for any new scientific data that suggests anything new ought to be addressed.  I told her the small-scale mining community has offered time and time again to meet with the Karuks and mitigate any actual perceived harm; but that they insist upon more restrictive regulations and complete closure to some waterways without any willingness to show the reasons why.  And lastly, I told her that the mining community is well-prepared to participate in the upcoming update process of the EIR that supports our industry, confident that best available science will show that our activity is not harming any fish.

It is interesting that the reporter decided to completely ignore all of my remarks and only print the Karuk's side of the editorial.  What kind of editorial is that?

If we really want to solve California's budget crises, the first thing we should do is stop shutting off productive enterprise which is not causing any harm.  This means we should do an honest look before jumping to conclusions.  California law requires the EIR to be updated before our regulations be changed.  That's the honest look.  The Karuks are pushing for "emergency"  reductions in our activity without allowing for an honest look.  This is just plain wrong!

Dave McCracken, President
The New 49'ers Prospecting Association
P.O. Box 47
Happy Camp, California
(530) 493-2012

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