Today, Washington Wild coordinated a letter signed by 60 conservation, recreation and wildlife organizations to the Washington Fish and Wildlife Commission calling for stronger regulations by the Washington Department of Fish and Wildlife restricting the practice of motorized suction dredge mining in Washington State rivers.
At issue is that Washington’s current regulations allow suction dredge mining in virtually all waterways and Pacific coastal beaches, including those designated as Critical Habitat under the Endangered Species Act (ESA), without requiring permits or monitoring. This activity is occurring largely unchecked in Critical Habitat for Chinook salmon, the primary food source for our struggling Southern Resident Killer Whale population.
Suction dredge mining is unraveling our investment in Washington’s water quality and fish habitat restoration. Washington’s water quality and fisheries resources are critical to our state’s economy, community well-being, way of life, and identity. Many of our most important fish populations – including Chinook salmon, the primary food source for our endangered Southern Resident Killer Whales – are struggling, with some on the brink of extinction, and we are spending hundreds of millions of taxpayer dollars on recovery efforts to try to save them.
During the 2019 state legislative session, a broad coalition of conservation, recreation and tribal groups supported legislation (HB 1261 and SB 5322) to restrict suction dredge mining in river reaches designated as critical habitat for salmon and endangered fish species and require permitting under the Clean Water Act. The bill was approved by key committees in the Senate and House but ran out of time before passing the House.
The result was disappointing but there is strong optimism for a legislative victory for this common-sense legislation in next year’s legislative session. The Washington Department of Fish and Wildlife is currently engaged in an administrative rulemaking process that will likely result in the requirement that miners apply for individual permits, but this does not address impacts to ESA Critical Habitat and other concerns. The letter sent today is intended to push the Commissioners to strengthen those regulations to be in line with the legislation.
Impacts of suction dredging and other forms of motorized mineral prospecting include:
- Erosion and sedimentation in streams
- Mobilization of mercury and other heavy metals
- Increases in water temperatures due to elevated turbidity and loss of riparian vegetation
- Water contamination at access areas (e.g., gasoline spills)
- Physical impacts to fish eggs, juvenile fish, invertebrates, and other aquatic organisms
- Interruption of natural stream form and function (and creation of fish stranding hazards)
- Denuded riparian habitat caused by repeated equipment access and long-term encampments
- Destruction of habitat features (e.g., removal of large woody debris)
Effective and commonsense rules limiting suction dredging in our neighboring states of Oregon, California, and Idaho have displaced miners that have now moved into Washington State, creating an even greater pressure on our streams.