The Crown JewelSeptember 27, 2022
Waders: Application SpecificMay 18, 2023
15 Years Strong
CCA Has Made Notable Changes to the Fishing Landscape in the Pacific Northwest Since its Inception in 2007
By Pat Hoglund
The Coastal Conservation Association first planted its roots in Washington and Oregon in 2007, a decade and a half ago. But long before that, the seeds of success were sewn along the Central Coast of Texas. And like many successful conservation groups, it was borne of desperation and frustration — both in the Lone Star State and here in the Pacific Northwest.
In Texas it began in the 1970s when the commercial fishing industry had a chokehold on most things related to fishing. In particular, gillnetters were harvesting speckled trout and redfish to the point of extinction. That’s when a group of 14 anglers formed what was then called the Gulf Coast Conservation Association. In 1977 their fledgling organization began a “Save the Redfish” campaign that four years later would see gillnets outlawed along the Texas coast. Subsequently, both redfish and speckled trout were declared a game fish. Their implausible campaign to save redfish not only set in motion one of the most powerful fishing conservation groups in the United States, but also saved the redfish and speckled trout populations from extinction thus rebirthing a vibrant sport fishing community that thrives to this day. It was anything but a coincidence.
Today, CCA boasts over 100,000 members nationwide with 206 chapters in 17 different states. CCA is fueled by 150 national board of directors, over 900 board members and 17 state and national lobbyists. It is an organization with political clout that can, and often does, affect serious change at the local, state and national levels of government. The model is tried and true, much like Ducks Unlimited or similar conservation groups. CCA’s livelihood relies on four components: membership, fundraising, communication and advocacy. Membership is divided up into individual chapters throughout each state. Those chapters raise funds through membership dues and banquets, which in turn are used to finance a paid staff and to pay lobbyists. Each state has a volunteer board of directors that includes state officers as well as state committee chairs.
Here in the Pacific Northwest, CCA’s stronghold is in Washington and Oregon. When healthy its membership hovers around 7,500 and is governed by 29 individual chapters that have collectively brought about more change than any other member-based conservation group in the region.
“It started, as it always starts, with a handful of very concerned, like-minded, conservation-minded anglers that are pretty tenacious and care a lot about fishing,” says CCA’s National President Pat Murray. “But also, in that they care a lot about the resource. They also tend to be people of vision because it’s sort of inherent to fishermen in that they think there’s got to be a way to make these resources better today and tomorrow.”
Washington has 18 chapters while Oregon has 11. Those chapters raise money in different ways including fishing derbies, golf tournaments, and auctioning off donated items at their banquets. Membership dues help pay many of the expenses, but a lion’s share of their money comes from banquets. They also rely on companies and private individuals for donations that go above and beyond the normal. For example, Willie Boats in Medford, Oregon donates a drift boat each year as has RB Boats in Beavercreek, Oregon.
“Donations like that, and those by countless other businesses and our members, are critical to CCA’s existence,” says Don New, communication director for CCA Oregon. “Without them, we’d be a lot less effective.”
When CCA first began in the Pacific Northwest much of the organization’s early popularity stemmed from a ballot initiative that promised to eliminate non-tribal gillnets on the Columbia River. It wasn’t the first time sport anglers in the Pacific Northwest attempted to ban gillnets, but because of the enormity of the task previous attempts failed. It wasn’t until 2012 that the idea took hold again. That year CCA Oregon members began gathering signatures, wrote the language for the ballot initiative, and then submitted it to the Oregon Secretary of State. Thus, Measure 81 was born.
“We didn’t do it half-heartedly,” recalls Bruce Polley, CCA Oregon Vice President. “We did it under advice of very smart people from CCA National that have been through similar processes before. We spent a lot of money and made sure we had a good, certified ballot title, that we had the right kind of language involved.”
While the ballot initiative continued to gain momentum, it was met with challenges. The most glaring was the political blessing from Oregon Governor John Kitzhaber. At the time, there were concerns that it wouldn’t pass without his stamp of approval.
“When John Kitzhaber got in the middle of it, he said, ‘I agree with you guys but I don’t want to do it by ballot initiative. I want to do it by a legislative plan,” recalls Polley.
That didn’t sit well with many sport fishermen who thought the measure would pass regardless of Kitzhaber’s support.
“We got a lot of heat from a lot of sport fishermen, but most people didn’t know what the hell they are talking about. We had no choice but to accept it,” says Polley, noting that passage was never a guarantee if left to the voters. “He (Kitzhaber) was trying to do the right thing for a lot of the right reasons, but politics is freaking ugly.”
What came of it was a case study in politics: give and take, compromise and concede, and at the end of the day accept what was won and lost.
The Kitzhaber Plan, as it was referred, brokered a deal with the commercial gillnet industry and sport fishermen to systematically move gillnets off the mainstem Columbia River and implement selective harvest for salmon. Most notably, Kitzhaber’s plan included a four-year transition period where gillnets would not be allowed on the mainstem Columbia by 2017.
“Ever since 2012 there’s been a constant erosion of the policies we put in place,” says Polley.
That erosion started in 2015 when Kitzhaber resigned amid a political scandal and Kate Brown was appointed interim governor for Oregon. Despite arguments against, Brown appointed former gillnet lobbyist Bruce Buckmaster onto the Oregon Fish & Wildlife Commission. As to be expected, Buckmaster wielded his influence on the commission which over time permitted gillnets on the mainstem Columbia.
While rehashing Measure 81, and the subsequent Senate Bill 830, might sound like a long-winded excuse for why commercial gillneters are still allowed to net salmon and steelhead, it is anything but. Rather, it is a case study of the give and take and the under belly of salmon politics. For a detailed explanation of the events, go to CCA Oregon’s website (ccaoregon.org).
“We would have never got the Columbia River reforms without the ballot initiative,” explains Polley. “I don’t think anybody can dispute that. There’s a lot less gillnetting going on the Columbia River now than there ever has been before. The policy that we passed was solid. It hasn’t all gotten implemented so now where we’re at is you recognize that there’s different political wins on either side of the river.”
Nello Picinich, Executive Director CCA Washington, agrees.
“When you look at what we’ve done and what we’ve gained, it has been massive.”
Make no mistake, Measure 81 cemented CCA’s foundation as a major player in fish politics.
Call it perseverance, call it doggedness, but the proverbial fallout of the decade-long fight to remove non-tribal gillnets from the Columbia River has taken a turn for the better. In Washington, thanks largely to CCA Washington, the legislature recently approved funding to buy gillnet licenses in effect reducing the number of gillnetters fishing the Columbia.
“This kind of puts everything into perspective,” explains Picinich. “We’ve been working on this gillnet buyback for three legislative sessions in a row, and for two legislative sessions it got vetoed by our governor (Jay Inslee). This is just the way politics works. I mean you throw spaghetti on the wall, and you see what sticks, and then you go back the next year, and you make a different kind of spaghetti and throw it on the wall again. We got vetoed by the governor twice and then on the third year, this last legislative session, we got the buyback passed.”
According to CCA $14.4 million of the 2023 general fund is earmarked solely for the WDFW to reduce the number of nontribal commercial gillnet fishing licenses on the Columbia River. As this issue went to press, 169 licenses were retired. Only 71 remain.
“The hard thing for people to grasp is that politics moves at a snail’s pace. Everything we want done, we want done yesterday and the reality is it just doesn’t work like that especially in politics,” says Picinich. “If they’re not moving backwards that’s a good thing. It happened because of the relationships that we’ve built over the last 15 years.”
Those relationships have as much to do with CCA’s reputation as it does their lobbyist, Heath Heikkila.
“At the national level CCA has not shied away from taking on the tough fights, which sometimes gets you bruised a little bit,” explains Heikkila. “At the state side of things, it’s a little bit of the same. We are definitely an advocacy group that is focused on the small P. When I say when I say small P, I mean our elected officials, the legislature; going to elected officials to bring policy change, that is definitely in our wheelhouse.”
And while the gillnet fight has helped solidify CCA’s identity, it is by no means what defines the organization. Not by a long shot. Another high-profile issue that CCA has had a major hand in is sea lion predation.
“In terms of the progress that’s been made, in my view, we were a key partner in helping to pass the federal legislation that amended the Marine Mammal Protection Act to build on an existing authority that allowed for sea lion control for the purpose of reducing predation to protect endangered salmon,” says Heikkila. “We helped shepherd that bill through that expanded and streamlined the process for ODFW WDFW to remove sea lions in places where they were habitual.”
In 2020, both states received permission to capture and euthanize up to 716 sea lions in the Columbia River and the Willamette River. Heikkila points out that would not have happened without the help of Jamie Herrera Beutler, despite having recently lost her bid for re-election in Washington’s 3rd District in Southwest Washington.
“She was very helpful getting that done and over the finish line,” says Heikkila, adding the tribes were also a key partner.
Picinich points to CCA’s support of hatcheries as another milestone in the group’s accomplishments.
“We’ve helped get well over $100 million in funding for hatcheries,” he says. “And when the opportunity presented itself like it did a couple years ago to increase hatchery production for the Orca whales, we went to bat for that.”
Recently, CCA Oregon mounted a campaign to save the Leaburg Hatchery, located on the McKenzie River. Operated and owned by the U.S. Army Corp, it was poised to close in 2019. As to be expected, the plan to close it was met with fanfare from anti-hatchery groups bent on seeing it close. Yet, CCA Oregon secured funding to transfer the hatchery to the state of Oregon and today it remains operational where it rears chinook and summer steelhead, along with rainbow trout. It was another case of CCA flexing its political muscle.
Outside of the legislature, Picinich notes the countless volunteer hours CCA members contribute.
“We do a lot for hatchery production with volunteers at hatcheries working on clipping fish, doing nutrient enhancement and of course the big one that we do every year in Washington that has just blown up into such a huge successful program is this King of the Reach Live Capture Derby up on Hanford Reach.”
Held in October every year and run by the Tri-Cities CCA chapter, with help from Grant County PUD, derby participants catch wild salmon and hold them in live wells. The salmon are then transferred to WDFW officials where they are used for broodstock at the Priest Rapids Hatchery.
Picinich noted Grant County’s involvement.
“I think they go above and beyond to create a stock that not only is surviving but thriving right now,” he says. “Look at all these upriver brights that we get to fish on right now.”
All of which is true, but there will be some sport anglers who take issue with Grant County’s involvement because, among other things, they operate dams on the upper Columbia. Which speaks to one of the most glaring problems facing our fisheries today.
“I used to give this spiel when I was giving my CCA talk about how fishermen are really good at identifying what divides us and not paying any attention to what joined us all together,” says Polley, adding that it’s also what keeps CCA membership below 10,000.
That aside, given what has transpired the past three years, notably the Covid-19 pandemic, both CCA Washington and Oregon are making hard pushes to bolster their membership.
“Take all these people that want to go out and catch salmon and they’ll buy a fishing rod, they’ll buy a reel, they’ll spend $500 at Fisherman’s Marine without batting an eye,” says Polley. “They have a big fancy jetboat that they put behind their new pickup truck, but they won’t invest a tenth of their annual spending on fishing to make sure that fishermen have a voice in the management of our fisheries. It’s baffling. I can complain about it but it’s never gonna change.”
When asked what would change that Polley referenced a conversation he had with longtime CCA national lobbyist Bob Hayes.
“He said you guys aren’t ready to do what you need to do because we haven’t seen a complete collapse in our fisheries yet. CCA got started in Houston because there was nothing left; they had wiped out the red fish and the speckled trout and there was nothing to go fishing for, and that’s when they started CCA.”
If you look at individual watersheds, a similar argument can be made. But we’re nowhere near close to what happened in the Gulf Coast states in the ’70s. We still have plenty of viable fisheries, thanks to modern hatchery practices and harvest reforms, many of which have been at the hands of CCA. Could it get better? Yes. Will it get better? That depends on you.
Murray, CCA’s national president, articulated it best. “It’s an ongoing challenge because you have to keep people motivated in knowing that they can make a difference,” he says. “It takes a different level of organization and a steadfast commitment that I see again and again in the Northwest. I mean I think about some of the leadership in both states. These guys continue to perform again and again. They have absolute undying dedication to making a difference and they make a difference every day.”