Dredging for Gold in the Bering Sea

Dredges at the pier, Nome, Alaska (USCG)

Published Aug 15, 2018 12:36 PM by U.S. Coast Guard News

The snow has thawed enough for the gold dredging season to kick off, and dredgers in Nome, Alaska, are ready to be on the water in search of hidden treasures on the Bering Sea floor. With boats in the water and deckhands aboard, these gritty and independent men and women are ready to hit the season hard in hopes of finding their lucky cache.

However, before these pioneers can seek out their awaiting treasures on their unique vessels, they must first obtain an inspection from the U.S. Coast Guard. An approved Coast Guard vessel inspection is also required by the Department of Natural Resources in order for dredgers to obtain a seasonal permit to dredge in Nome. They are off to a later start than usual this year, which made for a bustling week of inspections that picked up steam as the week went on

Lt. Cmdr. Mason Wilcox, the Sector Anchorage chief of inspections, Lt. Jonathan Dale, an inspections and investigations officer, and Jeff Ahlgren, a port security specialist, spent the week of June 11-15, 2018, in Nome conducting dredging inspections, fishing vessel inspections, and a foreign tank vessel inspection, in efforts to help the dredgers and fishermen alike get back out on the water with the knowledge and equipment to mitigate potential risks encountered on the Bering Sea.

“Gold dredgers must contact the Alaska DNR Division from Fairbanks or part-time office in Nome to obtain a DNR mining permit number to dredge the waters of Nome,” said Ahlgren. “Coast Guard dredge inspectors conduct the gold dredge safety portion of the inspection. If they pass, currently, they receive a gold dredge safety check equipment examination good for the current season.”

Between climbing in and out of the underbelly of the Myrtle Irene, one of the largest dredges, and maintaining the high pace of the numerous inspections conducted on smaller vessels, the marine vessel inspectors were hustling to keep up with the pace, but they did it with flying colors under the vibrant Alaskan sun that never sets.

Over the course of the week, Wilcox, Dale, and Ahlgren conducted 17 gold dredge inspections, six fishing vessel inspections, and one foreign tank vessel inspection, Ahlgren said.

“I conducted six commercial fishing vessel exams,” said Dale. “CFV exams are required for vessels operating more than three miles from the territorial sea baseline. Carriage requirements for vessels are based upon length, number of persons on board and how far from shore they operate. Once a vessel is in compliance, it receives a decal which is good for two years.”

Gold dredging has been an on-going expedition in Nome, but the Coast Guard’s involvement with inspections has been minimal until 2011, and as more safety concerns have arisen. Dredging for gold in such frigid waters is dangerous; currently dive certifications are not required for the gold dredge operators or those aboard the vessels. Divers are going out deeper every year, and without a permanent Coast Guard presence in Nome, it is paramount that the Coast Guard returns yearly for these inspections, both to maintain vessel safety and to answer any questions that may arise.

“As the easy to reach near shore gold has mostly been picked over, operators are designing larger dredges able to mine in deeper waters,” said Dale. “The new dredges are crossing regulatory thresholds requiring more detailed Coast Guard inspections.”

Lucas Stotts, the Harbormaster with the Port of Nome, said there are a variety of requirements for the dredges and their operators; they have the Coast Guard requirements as well as others from the Department of Natural Resources and from the State of Alaska before they can begin their quest underwater. June is a busy month because they have to get everyone permitted, make sure they have insurance, and then get everyone on the water, which is what they are in the process of doing now, he said.

“The Department of Natural Resources is going to give them a mining claim permit,” said Stotts. “I’m going to give them a permit to use our improved facilities based on foot length.”

Stotts said his job as the harbormaster is primarily to dispatch in and out all large vessel traffic, which can be difficult with the minimal amount of docking space.

“With the dredging fleet and the fishermen, it’s more so with the dredgers, it’s constantly managing where everybody is,” said Stotts. “It’s like playing Tetris every day.”

There are no assigned slips, so docking is on a first-come, first-served basis, Stotts said.

Compared to previous years, the number of vessels in the harbor is down for June, said Ahlgren. It could just be a late start to the season, he said. The harbor is usually filled by the first week of June, but either way, the inspectors worked relentlessly all week to respond to the inspection calls when they came in.

Ahlgren said the dredging season ranges from early June until October, with some vessels dredging longer into November, depending on the ice formation in the Nome Harbor.

“Weather is very unforgiving in the Nome and Bering Sea area,” said Ahlgren. “Most gold dredgers pay attention to the rapidly changing wind and weather conditions and prefer to conduct activities in calm winds and seas, and under clear visibility.”

However, Ahlgren said, just like with any other vessel, gold dredge vessels do break down, engines and equipment can fail and human error may occur on occasion. For this reason the Coast Guard highly encourages vessel inspections to reduce the chances of things like this happening.

The opinions expressed herein are the author's and not necessarily those of The Maritime Executive.