Gold miners called to rescue precious salmon

Friday, March 12, 2004

By ERIK ROBINSON, Columbian staff writer

A key piece of chum salmon habitat, situated along the Columbia River in the heart of Vancouver, has become choked with an unusually large slug of sand migrating downriver.

State fishery biologists estimate that 20,000 baby fish have been killed already, and they're hoping a group of gold miners will help prevent even more deaths.

More than a dozen gold miners from the Portland-Vancouver area have agreed to participate this weekend in what could be termed Operation Chum Rescue at the site a half-mile upstream of the Interstate 205 Bridge

Miners will use lawnmower-size dredges floating atop pontoons to carefully suck up the sand without disturbing the gravel salmon nests underneath. The miners will pipe the sand at least 60 feet off the riverbank, to be swept away by the Columbia's powerful current.

Bob Elskamp, a gold-mining hobbyist from Vancouver, said members of the Northwest Mineral Prospectors jumped at the chance to help out, while at the same time improving their public image. Elskamp said he and his mining partner, Roger Shaw, promptly rounded up a dozen fellow miners willing to spend Saturday and Sunday removing sand from the underwater nests.

"We've got fish dying," Elskamp said. "Miners aren't the bad guys like some of these environmental groups like to make us out to be. We do care about the environment and everything in it."

With the tiny fish just now emerging from the golf ball-size pebbles, biologists believe that roughly 20 percent of the spawning grounds has been covered in silt as deep as 18 inches.

Biologists thought carefully about how to improve the situation, at one point considering a fire hose to sluice away the muck. Carl Dugger, a biologist with the Washington Department of Fish and Wildlife, said the slug of sand which measures roughly 100 feet long by 25 feet wide has moved about 30 feet since it was first discovered about a month ago.

Although sand regularly shifts down the Columbia River shoreline, no one could remember a slug as big as this one.

The sand appeared at a bad time for the salmon. The inch-long alevins are just now emerging from the gravel redds, or nests, where spawning adults deposited them late last autumn. The area is a rare piece of intact habitat for the imperiled chum, which spawn by the hundreds every autumn in spring-fed seeps along a mostly undeveloped piece of shoreline owned by the Wood family.

Recent stories in The Columbian have highlighted the family's efforts to conserve the land, which is one of the last undisturbed reaches of Columbia River shoreline within the city's urban core.



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