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Old School Meets New School

Michael Verdon

Michael Verdon

Advocacy across the boating industry is in a good place these days, with marine trades, corporate advocates and nonprofits all lobbying on issues that we either oppose or, more often recently, support.

The recent passage of the Modern Fish Act was a good example of combining old-school lobbying by a coalition of boating and sportfishing associations with mass action alerts that showed our congressional representatives the industry was paying close attention to the issue.

Modern Fish is the poster child of what the industry can accomplish when it works together. It also may be the signature legislative achievement of the last five years.

And it’s just one of dozens of issues, big and small, that the industry is facing across the country.

The NMMA, which has become the industry’s de-facto lobbying arm on federal issues, has adopted a more aggressive approach to advocacy based on activism. It is now defining the industry’s agenda and actively pursuing it with legislators, rather than reacting to bills or regulatory challenges. More offense, less defense.

“Our end goal is to at least be part of the conversation,” says Nicole Vasilaros, who heads up NMMA’s advocacy efforts. Or as NMMA president Thom Dammrich puts it: “If you’re not at the table, you’re on the menu.”

The trade association has increased resources for advocacy, hiring additional staff in Washington, D.C., for communications and state issues. Boating has become a recognized force in Washington, touting its bipartisan status as a “uniquely American industry,” as NMMA puts it, with an economic impact of $170 billion.

Beyond federal issues, marine trades associations around the country are busy with local issues: Lake Erie Marine Trades Assocation is working on the potential hazards of wind turbines on Lake Erie; Rhode Island’s MTA has been busy with Clean Marina and zero-plastics programs. Northwest Marine Trade Association has its hands full with a NOAA guidance on the Endangered Species Act that could damage its $4 billion industry. The International Yacht Brokers Association helped draft a bill allowing sales of foreign-flagged vessels to U.S. buyers.

In Fort Lauderdale, the Marine Industries Association of South Florida tasked itself with improving visa access for non-U.S. yacht crews. The Texas Marine Industry Coalition wants a tax cap on boat sales so its marine businesses can compete with other states. Michigan Boating Industries Association is involved with stopping the spread of aquatic invasive species on the Great Lakes as well as educating new legislators on the industry’s importance to the state economy.

The list goes on and on.

Beyond the marine trades, corporate advocates such as Veronica Floyd of Brunswick Corp., David Slikkers of S2 Yachts and Martin Peters of Yamaha spend much of their lives communicating with legislators on industry issues. Yamaha, in particular, has been integral to sportfishing legislation (for example, Modern Fish) that benefits the industry as a whole.

Groups you probably don’t know anything about are also involved in old-school advocacy. The Lakes Environmental Association in Maine was launched in 1970 with a mission to restore the “traditional character of Maine’s lakes” by improving water quality. The nonprofit started out with a single lake, decimated by discharges, and within two years its research prompted legislators to do a statewide ban on phosphate detergents.

Nearly a half-century later, LEA provides comprehensive water testing for 40 Maine lakes. It also leads the fight against the spread of such invasive plants as milfoil and other aquatic invasive species. Beyond successfully lobbying for the strongest anti-milfoil laws in the country, LEA has established “wash stations” manned partially by volunteers.

“The milfoil is moving around by boats,” says LEA executive director Colin Holme. “Volunteers serve as inspectors at boat ramps, but part of our mission is to get boaters to understand the problem, so they can inspect their own boats. They need to realize that non-natives like milfoil will ruin their lake experience.”

Dozens of other local groups lobby for every possible issue that impacts boaters.

Technology has also become an important tool for smaller associations like the Northwest Marine Trade Association. Peter Schrappen, vice president and director of government affairs, uses a program called VoterVoice to send alerts to members if he wants them to contact state legislators.

“We’ve made it easy for them to engage because the process can be overwhelming,” he says. “If we want to reach one legislator on a committee, I can contact 10 of my most important members. If it’s a big issue, we can get all 735 members engaged.”The service is affordable, Schrappen says, especially considering its impact. He also has editorial control over the messages. “Some responses on issues like salmon runs, which has to do with tribal rights, can get racist, so I’m able to control what legislators read,” Schrappen says. “One bad message could impact a campaign. We’ve also found we don’t need a lot of people, but the right people.”

Old school meets new school. It’s a good time to be an advocate — through a trade association or your own business — and have a measurable impact on industry issues. The tools have never been more accessible or easier to use.

This article originally appeared in the April 2019 issue.


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