Editorial: Time for new rules on suction mining

From Sacramento Bee, 1/20/2009

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 These rules are badly out of date and inadequate to protect dwindling number of fish.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.