I’m beginning to better understand the nuances and relationships of the many organizations involved with conservation efforts in the Scenic 98 Coastal area. One that has been on my radar for a while is Coastal Conservation Association-Alabama. I met with its Executive Director, Blakeley Ellis, at The Sloop in Gulf Shores to get up to speed.
If you’ve lived in these parts for very long, you may remember an organization called Gulf Coast Conservation Association, GCCA for short. They are one and the same as CCA. CCA came into being in Houston, Texas in 1977. It was and still is an independent non-profit advocacy group supporting efforts to conserve saltwater resources along the Gulf Coast.
When Florida joined CCA, the name changed as the scope of its programs extended beyond the Gulf Coast. Today, CCA includes all of the Gulf Coast, the East Coast from Virginia to Maryland, and all of the West Coast of the United States. CCA now has over 120,000 members throughout the United States.
There is even a chapter in Nashville founded by John Frank called the Music City Chapter. It seems he had so much fun at an event in Orange Beach, that he petitioned the national office in Houston and they indeed awarded Nashville their own chapter.
For clarification, Alabama’s Department of Conservation oversees all freshwater fishing and all hunting in the state. Under the name, Outdoor Alabama, they control the activities of the state parks, license for hunting and fishing, and with Marine Resources, regulate bag limits and size limits on saltwater fish.
CCA works to raise funds for research and works closely with the University of South Alabama's marine biology department under Dr. Sean Powers. Some of the work CCA supports is a fish tagging program called Tag Alabama.
CCA funded tagging research for Cobia, and another for Bull Redfish. They also funded $20,000 for USA graduate students to assist with thesis research and attend conferences. This program is named after longtime Department Chair, Bob Ship, now retired.
Blakeley was named Executive Director in 2014. He says he always wanted a career in conservation. He grew up in the Gulf Shores and Orange Beach area and spent time fishing with his dad, Gary Ellis. He was an active volunteer with CCA raising funds for the artificial reef program which purchases and deploys reefs to attract and provide more fish habitat.
“We have more artificial reefs along the coast of Alabama than any other place in the world,” he tells me. “When the BP oil spill happened in 2010, everything stopped.” In the aftermath, CCA partnered with the Alabama Wildlife Federation to draft an artificial reef plan for the State to submit to receive Restore Funds as a result of the oil spill. The state was awarded a $42 million grant.
The Artificial Reef program is important for the study of how fish react to each level of reef placement; inshore, near shore, or offshore. Each is a step in the lifecycle of different species of fish. “That research tells us which reefs are producing the most fish, which reef types are best, that gives us a better understanding of how best to deploy the funds.”
The major tenets of the program are to add new reefs, replenish new material to existing reefs, and study how the reefs interact with each other. This research also tells them which type of reefs work the best, and which materials to use: rip rap, old railroad box cars, or concrete, which is not as readily available these days. “If reefs are too close, they are less productive.”
CCA supports the State Hatchery near Gulf Shores airport. There they raise Southern flounder, Speckled trout, and Florida pompano. Essentially, the funds go to purchase equipment and upgrade the hatchery beyond what State funds provide.
“Flounders grow better in square tanks instead of round,” he says. “We’ve helped purchase chillers to keep the water temperature correct. Last year, the State Hatchery released over 100,000 juvenile flounder into the waters off the coast of Alabama.
State funds are supported by a Federal Excise tax placed on every piece of fishing equipment sold. Called the Sport Fish Restoration Fund, every manufacturer of all fishing tackle, boats, motors, rods, and reels pays into the fund before anything hits the stores. Every dollar raised by CCA is matched two to one by the Restoration Fund. Over the past five years, CCA has raised 250,000 dollars for the State Hatchery and received $500,000 in matching funds.
I asked Blakeley about what the State’s impact is on fishing habitat. “We are very lucky right now to have good leadership in place throughout the Department of Conservation. They are focused on bag and size limits to ensure that future generations can enjoy fishing in our Gulf waters.”
One example he cited was the State’s closure of flounder fishing when they go offshore to spawn during the month of November. “Changing the mindset. Just because you caught the limit, that’s not a measuring stick for a successful fishing trip.” He harkens back to his Eagle Scout days, “Leave it better than you found it, whether it's beaches, fishing, or conservation.” Blakeley also tells me about the Senior Science Program for those who have hung up their fishing rod.
Each year, Blakeley attends the I-Cast Trade Show in Orlando. It’s the largest fishing and tackle trade show in the world, and Blakeley reels in lots of merchandise to be auctioned to raise funds for CCA events held throughout the state each year. “Most of the manufacturers are members of Corporate Conservation Partners and are extremely supportive of our efforts.”
The three primary fundraising activities of CCA-Alabama are In-person and online fundraisers and auctions, the CCA state license plate program where $42 of the $50 goes directly to CCA, and the annual CCA main event, which will take place at Oak Hollow Farm on October 5. It will include a classic live auction, a silent auction, and a raffle.
I can attest that these are fun events and I encourage you to sign up. Sponsorships are still available for $600. Table sponsorships are $1300 for eight people. Individual tickets are $90, or $120 for a couple. You will see lots of familiar faces and have great food. It’s really a red-letter event for the conservationists in our area.
As we finish our conversation, I ask him if he has any parting thoughts. “Pack your patience and pack a plan anytime you get out on the water. Be observant and learn from your mistakes.”
Sage advice, indeed Thank you, Blakeley!