Salmon & Steelhead habitat in Washington head toward new safeguards

Pictured: Washington’s Yakima River. Photo by J Brew

By: Dean Finnerty

Suction dredge mining has spelled trouble for salmon and steelhead habitat in Washington state.

Recently, Trout Unlimited unearthed documents that suggest that motorized suction dredge mining has been allowed as an accident for the last 20 years. As a result of this oversight, some miners have caused substantial damage to Washington fish-bearing streams and habitat.

A meeting held Saturday in Olympia could be the first step in changing this.

Over the weekend, the Washington Fish and Game Commission unanimously agreed to begin a rule-making process where stakeholders can work with the Washington Department of Fish and Wildlife to update the state’s rules and better protect fish habitat.

In recent years, states like California, Oregon and Idaho have enacted laws that either flatly prohibit suction dredge mining, or prohibit the activity in waters with critical habitat for fish like salmon, trout, and steelhead. These stricter rules have caused a lot of miners to simply head for Washington where its rules are far more relaxed and less restrictive.

For example, in Washington if you want to work in a stream channel to improve habitat for fish or improve water quality, you are required to obtain permits from state agencies that regulate this work. However, if you want to enter a stream with a motorized suction dredge to seek minerals like gold, you simply have to follow some rules in a pamphlet the state developed called the “Gold and Fish” pamphlet.

In 1998, the Washington legislature convened and created legislative intent and authority for the Department of Fish and Wildlife to manage this activity. In a recent search of state archives in Olympia, Trout Unlimited unearthed documents from that legislative session that specifically precluded motorized suction dredge work from the Gold and Fish pamphlet. It is not known how or why this legislative directive was ignored and “motorized suction dredge” activities were included in the rules that have been used for nearly the past 20 years.

Clearly, it’s well past time for suction dredge mining to be limited so that it doesn’t further impact Washington’s salmon, trout, steelhead and we are happy to see these rules move forward. Trout Unlimited will continue to participate in this process to ensure the rules are adequate.

By Brennan Sang.