Governor Signs Bill to Protect Salmon Habitat

For Immediate Release
August 15, 2013

Forrest English, Rogue Riverkeeper, 541-261-2030
Josh Laughlin, Cascadia Wildlands, 541-844-8182
Erik Fernandez, Oregon Wild, 503-283-6343 x202
Jim McCarthy, WaterWatch of Oregon, 541-708-0731

Governor Signs Bill to Protect Salmon Habitat
Bill to Reduce Impacts of Suction Dredge Gold Mining on Oregon Rivers

Salem, OR — Anglers, landowners, outdoor recreation businesses, and river advocates celebrated yesterday as Governor John Kitzhaber signed Senate Bill 838 (SB 838). The bill takes steps to protect salmon habitat throughout Oregon through reasonable reductions in levels of harmful suction dredge gold mining.

“Salmon and clean water are some of the defining characteristics for Oregon’s streams and rivers,” said John Ward of Rogue Flyfishers. “This bill is a first step to ensure their protection as most Oregonian’s desire.”

The signed bill is a compromise with three main sections to be implemented over the next three years. The first part starting in 2014 will bring the maximum numbers of permits down to 850 statewide – the number of permits issued in Oregon before California banned this type of mining, driving a large increase of out of state miners to Oregon rivers. The legislation gives preference to long-time Oregon miners and makes lonely minor changes to current dredging regulations.

The second portion of the bill directs the Governor’s office to lead state agencies in the development of a new comprehensive regulatory framework for the legislature’s approval in 2015. This framework would be designed to meet reasonable protections for threatened and endangered salmon and trout, while simplifying Oregon’s currently complex permitting process for this suction dredging.

“There will be over two years of public process to ensure that these new regulations are well thought out, scientifically based and effective,” said Josh Laughlin of Cascadia Wildlands. “This is a fair and balanced process that will benefit clean water and salmon into the future.”

The third and final part of the bill—a 5 year moratorium on suction dredging in salmon habitat—will go into effect only if the legislature fails to act in 2015 by adopting the Governor’s new regulations.

“While this bill doesn’t solve the problem it’s an important first step in better protecting Oregon’s drinking water sources from mining pollution,” said Erik Fernandez of Oregon Wild.

Suction dredge mining in waterways involves the use of gasoline-powered vacuums, mounted on floating rafts, which suck up the riverbed in search of gold. Scientific studies have demonstrated that the practice harms spawning habitat, invertebrate and bivalve communities that feed fish, and stirs up toxic mercury. There has been a spike in suction dredge mining in Oregon since California enacted a moratorium on the practice in 2009 due to its impacts on water quality and fish populations. Between 2005-2012, there was a 580% increase in suction dredge mining in Oregon, more than quadrupling from 414 to 2,409 permits issued. The increasing number of suction dredgers has introduced new conflicts with other river users and landowners.

“In response to this growing threat to Oregon’s iconic rivers and streams, a broad coalition of fishermen, conservationists, outfitters, and other river enthusiasts asked the legislature this year to take reasonable, science-based steps to protect these invaluable resources,” said Jim McCarthy, WaterWatch of Oregon’s Southern Oregon Program Manager. “We commend our legislative leaders and the Governor for taking this first step toward better protection of our state’s rivers and salmon runs.”

Science played a major role in the construction and passage of SB 838. In California, state agencies conducted an exhaustive evaluation of the scientific literature, and concluded that the only way to prevent the negative water quality and health impacts of suction dredging is to prohibit the activity altogether. In early April, the Oregon Chapter of the American Fisheries Society sent a letter to Oregon legislators outlining the myriad impacts suction dredging has on fish. One of the letter’s recommendations was to prohibit or greatly reduce suction dredge mining in areas used for spawning by sensitive fish stocks. This followed a similar letter issued by the Western Division of the American Fisheries Society prior to the California moratorium.

“Studies have shown that suction dredging can mobilize toxic mercury, and reduce the spawning success of salmon species,” said Forrest English of Rogue Riverkeeper. “This bill ensures Oregon will better evaluate the available science and ensure that water quality and our iconic fish species are protected into the future.”