WASHINGTON, D.C. — Attendance at the American Boating Congress increased by 20 percent — the largest jump in the event's history — with a total of about 250 marine industry stakeholders.
"I've talked before about our industry as an ecosystem and we've seen some growth over the past few years — slow but steady growth — but this year, through the work of our co-hosts, our attendance is up 20 percent. That is fantastic," NMMA president Thom Dammrich told a packed house during his speech to the industry on the final day of the conference.
"Something that affects one part of our industry adversely will eventually negatively impact the entire industry, the entire recreational boating system, and nowhere is that more true than in our advocacy efforts."
At ABC the industry, in a united effort, formulates and lobbies for public policy positions on issues that affect marine businesses.
"This year's event is truly representative of the depth and breadth of our industry," Dammrich added.
He praised the rising number of co-hosts (this year there are close to 40 of them, including Soundings Trade Only) and sponsors.
"As a result of our co-hosts’ work, we've been able to create a more robust and exciting event each year," said Dammrich, who went on to present the ABC Ambassador Award to the Marine Trades Association of New Jersey for its promotional and educational efforts as a co-host.
The industry's federal political action committee — BoatPAC — is also thriving, said Dammrich, adding that it is now co-sponsored by the NMMA and the Marine Retailers Association of the Americas. "[BoatPAC] is strongest when everyone pitches in," Dammrich said.
BOATPAC supports the election of candidates to Congress who are strong advocates for recreational boating.
Dammrich said marine businesses now have the opportunity to institute payroll deductions for the financial support of BoatPAC. This year, Intrepid Powerboats was recognized for having the greatest payroll deduction through the program and received the Ambassador of Advocacy Award.
Dammrich also showed the crowd a list of recent advocacy successes, which included the reauthorization of $600 million for the Sport Fish Restoration and Boating Trust Fund, passing legislation to fix the model year definition for recreational craft and legislation to update engine weight regulations and passing the Magnuson-Stevens reauthorization bill in the House of Representatives.
A big part of the conference includes the opportunity for attendees to visit with members of Congress or their staff to push the marine industry agenda. As they headed into their second day of these "Hill visits," Dammrich listed the top five issues as ethanol, recreational fishing, passage of the Water Resources Development Act, trade and water access.
A host of speakers took the stage after Dammrich was done, including U.S. Rep. Austin Scott of Georgia's 8th Congressional District. He spoke passionately about the importance of strong advocacy for access to fishing, zeroing in on the short nine-day red snapper season.
"Fishing has been a big part of my life, and they've taken something from me that is important," said Scott. "Because with my dad at the age of 70, I probably will never go snapper fishing with him again. They stole that from my family, if you want to get right down to it."
To further push his point, Scott told the audience that his 16-year-old son, Wells, while fishing the Gulf of Mexico for speckled trout, was disappointed that he has never caught a snapper. "It dawned on me how much they had taken from us when [my son] said that."
Scott urged the industry to stand up for its consumers and fight for fishing rights. "You have a great industry, one that really stands for America," said Scott, who owns a 32-foot Regulator fishing boat.
U.S. Rep. Patrick E. Murphy, who represents Florida's 18th Congressional District, which includes Palm Beach, Martin and St. Lucie counties, talked about the need for protecting the health of boating and fishing waterways.
He cited the drainage of fresh water from Lake Okeechobee into the coastal waters of Florida and in the Florida Keys. Water quality, and therefore marine life, has suffered because of the drainage, which chokes the water of oxygen. "Something that is near and dear to my heart is cleaning up our waterways," he said.
Murphy also spoke of the need for bipartisan conversation and finding "the middle ground" to make progress. "Compromise isn't a dirty word," said Murphy.
For the first time the event featured two keynote speakers: Fox & Friends Weekend anchor Tucker Carlson and CNN commentator Paul Begala.
Begala is a Democratic strategist, and he is a political contributor for CNN. He appears frequently on “The Situation Room” and other CNN programming. Begala was a chief strategist for the 1992 Clinton-Gore campaign.
"Bernie Sanders' message is a message that looks very much like Donald Trump's message," said Begala. "It's, 'Hey Washington, there is a middle class in America, and you can't have a functioning democracy and [healthy] economy without it. And by the way, our middle class is collapsing."
Carlson is editor-in-chief of The Daily Caller, a political news website. A conservative pundit, he formerly co-hosted CNN’s “Crossfire” and MSNBC’s “Tucker.”
"You are watching a rebellion of voters against their own parties on both sides," Tucker said. "That's what is actually happening, and we miss this in the press because we focus too much on the people who are running."