Q&A with Jim Van Loan, Steamboat Inn North Umpqua River

Jim Van Loan, proprietor of the Steamboat Inn on the North Umpqua likes his steelhead wild and wary, not brainless bruisers dispensed from an ODFW fillet factory.

Van Loan has been arguing at ODFW hearings, championing habitat over hatcheries and fighting for no-kill on wild steelhead. He served as a wildlife commissioner from 1987 to 1995 and has been involved with the Oregon Salmon and Trout Enhancement Program (STEP).

Van Loan adheres to the Lichatowich principle, summarized below:

For the past 150 years, fisheries managers have used hatchery production in an effort to replaced spawning and rearing habitat for wild salmonids. Rivers became simple conduits to the sea for juvenile salmon produced in fish factories. This led to the belief that habitat could be traded for hatcheries. It minimized the importance of wild salmon populations and allowed a century of habitat degradation. Trading salmon habitat for fish factories might have been justified if it had worked, if artificial propagation had maintained the supply of salmon. It didn’t. Salmon and steelhead are extinct in over 40% of their historical range and salmon in most of the rest of their range in the Pacific Northwest are protected under the Endangered Species Act. A management system based on hatcheries is difficult to change, even after it is clear that it cannot maintain the supply of salmon and that it makes the problems worse.
— James Lichatowich, from the Introduction to Salmon Without Rivers

Below is an excerpt of a recent conversation with Van Loan.

Tell me about the conservation ethic on the North Umpqua:
Jim Van Loan: If you hang out around here and you’re going to meet a lot of conservationists, people that put their money where their mouth is — not cocktail conservationists. What I hope to see is someway to get everybody into the same tent so that 100 years from now you can go out and fish for steelhead and have a chance at catching one.

We need timber industry, agriculture, and everybody else on the same page. You talk to the local folks in the timber industry — they think they’ve been regulated to death. Agriculture people are suspicious of anything that has to do with government. But a lot of them belong to the 1000 friends of Oregon, because they don’t want to see their land cut up into subdivisions any more than anyone else.

There’s a strong perception around this state that the people in Portland are out to get them. I think the people in Portland are just oblivious to the problems that rural people have. They come down here for one week a year and they want to see this river stay the way it is. They join the Steamboaters, Oregon Trout, and The North Umpqua Foundation. They do most of their work with a fountain pen. The local people are the ones who are out keeping an eye on things, trying to cooperate with agencies that want to cooperate.

What’s the biggest problem facing our native fish stocks?
It’s that tired old hackneyed phrase, death from a thousand cuts. People want to live on the river. We have 100,000 people who live in Douglas County, virtually every one of them lives on or near running water. The biggest problem that we have is places where the sewage isn’t treated. It’s not an attractive topic, literally thousands of septic tanks leaching into the river.

Soon after we bought this place, I discovered that I was the proud owner of an inoperative septic sank. I started to look into what we could do other than go bankrupt. Orenco Systems Inc. built a system that pumps effluent up the mountain, 400 vertical feet, ¼ mile away. For a while it was the 8th wonder of the world. If you Google me, that’s what you’ll find I’m famous for. Because ODOT and the Forest Service cooperated in removing an outdated wastewater treatment plant we have a similar system in place across the river from The Inn. We don’t have volatile chemicals or heavy metals going into the North Umpqua anymore.

Why is it so important to protect wild steelhead on the North Umpqua?
The healthiest stocks of fish we have in the North Umpqua are the wild winter steelhead. That’s why we have to fight the argument to kill wild winter steelhead — because some folks think we can always supplement with hatchery fish. A guide is at the mercy of his clients. Two clients, two fish each, pretty soon you’ve got an awful lot of take on wild fish.

The regulation has been saved –we’ll now have a five year no kill model to look at in four years — the result of lobbying by guides and the conservation community to retain the no kill rule in Forest Grove on the 19th of September.

Hatchery programs degrade the wild stocks and are incredibly expensive. If that same money could be put into habitat it’d be a wonder. We think if they just don’t kill wild winter steelhead, we’d all have more fish.

What are some other steps we could take?
ODFW depends on fish counts at Winchester dam and they do creel census every once in a while, but I don’t think it’s a very effective method. I’d like to see every guide keeps a log book — all steelhead tags will be turned in and failure to turn in results in a failure to purchase a license next year. A lot of people are out just one or two days, pay 12 dollars and their catch is not recorded. This should be corrected.

I’d also like to see all hatchery-reared salmonids marked, by clipping the adipose fin. Some people involved with the STEP program are opposed to that. They cite mortality as a reason. Mortality is somewhere around 3-4% for fin clipping, but I can’t think of a responsible reason not to mark all reared fish.

What is the distribution of hatchery fish on the Umpqua system now?
The STEP program largely releases fish on the South Umpqua. The Steamboaters have made it clear they don’t want hatchery fish released above Rock Creek. That makes the fishing as challenging as it’s ever been. When we first came here in 1975, there was a return of 22,000 summer steelhead and of those, about 20,000 were hatchery fish. Anybody could go out here and catch a fish. It’s a lot more difficult now.

You go up and visit Lee Spencer who keeps track of every fish in the pool. He sees usually two or three fin clipped steelhead in the pool at most. So for whatever reason, hatchery fish reared at Rock Creek and below tend not to come up here. We hope we have a pretty pure gene pool in Steamboat and Canton Creek. But I think there are a lot of fish that spawn in the Mainstem Umpqua and we don’t have much information about them.

What are some of the projects that the North Umpqua Foundation has been working on?
The North Umpqua Foundation is working on trying to implement some of Lickatowitch’s ideas, gearing up to hire some specialists who will study the problems we’re facing.

We also give grants to the Forest Service, which may seem strange, but the USFS doesn’t have the money to spend rehabilitating steelhead streams. Some of our members say the government was responsible for selling the timber, letting it go to hell, but that isn’t going to happen. Blame won’t get us anywhere.

One other thing the North Umpqua foundation has done is raise funds for a camera system throughout this area. The system is widely dispersed throughout the Umpqua watershed and can be running almost anywhere. For example, one camera is focused on the fish ladder or the pool, another is focusing on a likely spot a car would be parked. The cameras work as a very effective deterrent.

Where do you fish other than the North Umpqua?
I’ve been able to fish Argentina, Chile, Iceland, Russia, Belize, Christmas Island, Mexico, Honduras and a few other places. I have a forgiving spouse.

I’ve fished the Sustut River in British Columbia for 22 years. The river looks a lot like the North Umpqua. It’s got great geology and probably the biggest steelhead in the world, they average 15 lbs. The year before last, nine of us landed 132 fish. Last year, nine of us landed seven fish. The glaciers can melt, the rivers turn muddy — it’s a crap shoot. This Fall we did a quite bit better.

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