Commentarty: Mining method sucks the life from salmon streams

Bills in the Legislature would end the practice of suction dredge mining and preserve fish habitat.

By Scott Schuyler / For The Herald

Salmon are at the center of our culture as a people. For time immemorial, members of the Upper Skagit Tribe and our ancestors have relied on and stewarded amazing creatures that we share the land and rivers with.

Over the past century, the historic salmon populations have declined significantly because of habitat loss, hydropower, pollution and, most recently, climate change. A century ago hundreds of thousands of salmon made there way up Washington rivers. Today that number has been reduced to tens of thousands or even less in some cases, as with this year’s Skagit River steelhead.

These fish are central to our culture for subsistence, for ceremony and spiritual connection to the land and water. The Upper Skagit and other tribes, as well as local municipalities, state and federal agencies have all invested billions of dollars to restore habitat and promote salmon recovery based on the best science available.

For example, a watershed-scale effort to restore the health of Hansen Creek, northeast of Sedro-Woolley, has been ongoing for several decades. In 2010 the Upper Skagit Tribe worked with Skagit County to turn a highly degraded section of the creek into 140 acres of meandering channels and productive floodplain wetlands. Ongoing partnerships are expanding this effort to adjacent reaches, bringing back habitat that historically supported abundant chinook, steelhead, and coho. Planning is underway for future projects that will help address climate change and low summer stream flows.

Right now this significant investment in salmon habitat restoration is at risk by the practice of motorized suction dredge mining. Under current state law, there are little to no restrictions on mining enthusiasts who use a high-powered suction device to extract gravel, pebbles and sediment from salmon spawning streams in the hopes of finding gold. Often these are the same areas that threatened and endangered salmon and steelhead use for spawning.

Motorized suction dredge mining in Washington harms our salmon, steelhead and the species that depend on them for survival, including our orca whales. Scientific studies show suction dredging degrades water quality through erosion and sedimentation and mobilization of mercury and other heavy metals; affects fish and the aquatic food web by destroying aquatic habitat, physically “processing” fish and aquatic life, creating fish stranding risks, and denuding riparian vegetation.

Washington is the only Western state that still allows this activity to occur in critical habitat for our endangered fish populations. Oregon, Idaho and California have all passed legislation to stop this practice in designated critical habitat.

Restoring and preserving salmon runs and their habitat is not just important to our tribe, it is a fundamental legal treaty right that we have retained via the United States of America. Through those treaties we lost the land that we stewarded for thousands of years but we retained the right to the fish and wildlife resources that are central to our culture. Federal courts have upheld those rights through the Boldt and other decisions. Article VI, Section 2, of the Constitution states: “This Constitution, and the laws of the United States which shall be made in pursuance thereof; and all treaties made, or which shall be made, under the authority of the United States, shall be the supreme law of the land.”

House Bill 1261 and Senate Bill 6149 in the state Legislature are important steps to protect the investment we have all make and continue to make in restoring salmon habitat and recovery for our endangered orca whales. In the end, protecting intact existing salmon habitat form motorized suction dredge mining is equally important as restoring impaired salmon habitat for the future. We need to do both to save our iconic salmon and orcas not just for the tribe but because it’s the right thing to do.

Scott Schuyler is a member of the Upper Skagit Tribe, who has fished the Skagit River for the last 40 years and has seen firsthand the loss of habitat, environmental degradation and the downward spiral of the great Skagit salmon runs.

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