The fishing industry casts a wide net

Posted on Written by Bill Sisson

Bill SissonBoating and fishing draw participants with the same strong magnet. Both activities promise fun, relaxation, family time, the great outdoors, adventure and so on.

“Fishing and boating go together like peanut butter and jelly,” one industry veteran opined at the recent ICAST sportfishing trade show in Orlando, Fla. Cliché notwithstanding, he’s right. Boating and fishing are highly complementary. It’s no surprise that fishing remains the No. 1 boating activity.

Being so intertwined, the two activities also share a number of the same challenges, including changing demographics and an aging audience. “Pale, stale and male” is how one industry leader at ICAST describes the core demographic. It’s the same flavor in boating, and I say that as a sexagenarian who is both an avid fisherman and boat owner.

With its “60 in 60” initiative, the sportfishing industry has set an “aspirational goal” of pushing angling participation to 60 million people in 60 months, according to Frank Peterson, president and CEO of the Recreational Boating & Fishing Foundation, which is leading the charge. There are about 45 million angling participants in the United States. (About 31 million resident fishing licenses, tags, permits and stamps were sold in 2015.)

The cornerstone of the goal is a strategy called R3, which stands for “recruitment, retention and reactivation.”

Fifteen million new participants in five years is an ambitious target, but Peterson is optimistic. At one time or another in their lives, about 120 million Americans put a line in the water. “You can’t tell me we can’t get 20 million of them to come back,” Peterson told me during an interview in Orlando.

He admits that moving the dial in a significant way is going to take a concerted effort on the part of the industry, state fish and wildlife agencies, and associations such as RBFF, the American Sportfishing Association and others.

And he knows there are skeptics. In remarks made at the ICAST industry breakfast, Peterson said, “I think 50 percent of the people in this room think we’re absolutely crazy, and 50 percent think it’s a good idea.”

But is there really any other choice? Sitting pat is not a growth strategy.

“I am your current customer,” ASA president and CEO Mike Nussman told the breakfast audience. “We’re baby boomers. We’re 50 years old and getting older.” The good news is that boomers love to fish, they’ve got money, and they’ve got time, Nussman noted.

Although that might work for the next decade or so, a growing number of industry leaders understand it’s not great news for the post-boomer years. “Folks, the world has changed, and we have to change,” Nussman remarked.

It’s no secret why the industry is so interested in reaching a younger, more diverse audience. Peterson uses the image of a “leaky bucket” to describe the current state of angling activity. “Each year we lose more participants than we gain,” he says.

Fishing participation dropped by about 300,000 between 2014 and 2015, with a churn rate of about 14.2 percent. Good news: About 6.2 million new (or former) participants fished or returned to the fold during that time. Bad news: 6.5 million people stopped fishing in the same period.

As with boating, getting people started early is important. Roughly 83 percent of adult anglers fished as a child. And more than a third of all anglers — and about half of so-called avid anglers — had their first fishing experience when they were 5 years old or younger.

“You have to get them started early, or there’s a good chance they won’t fish later in life,” says ASA vice president of industry relations Glenn Hughes. “It’s the same with boating.”

There are positive signs. Roughly 2.5 million people went fishing for the first time last year. About 44 percent of those new participants were young people between 6 and 17, and about 46 percent were female. Overall, youth participation grew by 2 percent in 2015, and the number of Hispanic anglers climbed 3 percent.

“But we still have retention issues,” says Peterson. “My job is to bring in new people. I’m concentrating on the front end.”

What keeps Frank Peterson up nights? “What I worry about the most now is the failure to adapt to the changing audience,” he says. “Our biggest challenge is to become relevant to the changing population.”

Stakeholders are nearly unanimous in their belief that boating and fishing have to be more diverse. To that end, the RBFF is targeting multicultural families with children between the ages of 6 and 17, their grandparents and extended families.

“Hispanics are the fastest-growing multicultural community,” says Peterson, which is why the RBFF has made that demographic the focus of a successful outreach program for the last couple of years. Hispanic fishing participation grew by 3 percent, to 3.4 million, in 2015.

Time constraints — usually family or work — are the reasons most people give for putting away their gear, at least for a time.

But interest in fishing — even if it’s a latent interest — is high, which is encouraging. The industry does not have to manufacture demand, but it does have to bring in new people, reinterest those who once fished and stopped, and reduce the churn.

This article originally appeared in the August 2016 issue.

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