Suction-dredge gold mining uses a gas-powered vacuum to suck up the bottoms of salmon bearing streams looking for gold, then spits the gravel and silt back out. The laws governing this mining practice are embarrassingly outdated and present a major risk not only to sensitive trout, salmon and steelhead populations, but to local economies, as well.
I make my living promoting fly fishing destinations in Oregon and around the world. I directly employ six full-timers in Ashland and indirectly we support dozens of Oregon guides on rivers across the state.
With the recent and appropriate closure of suction dredging in California, dredging traffic is way up in Southern Oregon. It is a real pity and a threat.
Last year on a family float trip on the Rogue in the section beneath the recently removed Gold Ray Dam, the number of dredgers horrified me. On one flat in particular there were 20 within view at one time, all with motors running and silt plumes trailing behind.
It was like a slalom course getting through them. The entire scene was noisy, awkward and unattractive.
Had I known of the scene that we were to encounter at the time of booking our trip, I would likely have elected to take my party of 12 elsewhere for a day of guided rafting. Heck, in hindsight we might have ended up in California!
Likewise, I will insist from now on that none of our traveling anglers fish that section of the river or other areas where dredgers dominate, as it is a poor testament to our state and its priorities. Frankly our rivers, our residents and our tourists all deserve better.
Suction dredging is a lose/lose proposition. Its licensing fees are absurdly low (and can't even come close to covering enforcement of existing rules), the income it generates for the local community is similarly low and its negative effects on the environment are getting higher every year.
In the past seven years suction dredging permits issued by the state of Oregon have jumped from 414 permits to 2,409 permits. In 2012 alone, the number of permits doubled from the previous year.
The destabilization of critical spawning habitat cannot be contested. Salmon lay eggs in both natural and post-mining gravel deposits. The disturbed gravels are substantially more prone to washing away in storms than natural gravel, causing salmon eggs to be lost and reducing salmon survival. Likewise it damages invertebrate aquatic insect populations that are crucial to resident and anadromous fish populations alike. Aesthetically it is equally demeaning to the outdoor experience of fishermen, hikers and boaters alike.
Oregon is blessed with beautiful and productive rivers. That is why I live and operate my business here. We all know that the heyday of wholesaling out our natural resources for reckless harvest are behind us. Let us enact some laws that illustrate that understanding and help us push forward with the critical work of creating sustainable, long-term economic solutions that showcase the beauty and productivity of our state's wild rivers.
Our legislators have the opportunity to pass Senate Bill 838 and enact a temporary moratorium on suction dredging in salmon habitat. In the face of rapidly increasing dredging, we should take this opportunity to step back and evaluate where and when this form of gold mining should occur to best protect Oregon's natural and economic resources. We owe at least that courtesy to our residents and our shared future.
Ken Morrish of Ashland is co-owner of Flywater Travel.