Organizers of the American Boating Congress, which will be held May 15-17 in Washington, D.C., say this year will offer new opportunities to get boating’s message heard on Capitol Hill.
“We’re trying to take advantage of the fact that we have a new president and a new Congress,” says Nicole Vasilaros, vice president of federal and legal affairs for the National Marine Manufacturers Association. “All ABCs, we think, are important, but when it’s a fresh start both in the administration and on Capitol Hill, it’s an opportunity to tell our story and to educate the 62 new members of Congress. Hopefully our message is going to resonate with new ears and a new perspective in 2017. That’s the excitement of it.”
The NMMA and other industry groups have joined with a newly formed Outdoor Recreation Industry Roundtable to highlight the economic impact of outdoor recreation and become unified around issues that affect outdoor recreation, such as infrastructure improvements and access to public lands and waters.
“That’s one of the opportunities this year — elevating the concerns of all outdoor recreation,” including boating, fishing, archery, camping, hunting and more, Vasilaros says. “If we can be a part of that greater message it helps to tell a really good story that we haven’t done good service to in the past.”
Industry stakeholders have applauded the appointment of Ryan Zinke as Interior secretary because they believe he will safeguard access to public lands and waters.
This year there will be three tracks of issue workshops. The NMMA says there are nine new issue workshops on the agenda, divided into three subject tracks — a business track, an environment and access track and a workforce and compliance track.
The business track will offer sessions on tax policy, infrastructure and trade. The environment and access track will offer sessions on access and conservation, boating safety and saltwater recreational fishing policy. The workforce and compliance track will offer sessions on workforce development, fuel policy and health and safety compliance.
CNN chief Washington correspondent and anchor Jake Tapper will be the keynote speaker on May 17. Tapper will address topics related to “fake news” and misinformation and will follow his address with a Q&A session.
Workforce a hot topic
Workforce shortages also will have a prominent place on the agenda, says Matt Gruhn, president of the Marine Retailers Association of the Americas. “That’s our biggest issue, frankly,” Gruhn says. “We’ve had several years of consistent growth. The more we’re growing, the more trouble we’re having finding people to fill positions. We talk about the importance of the retail experience, but if we don’t have enough people to take care of the customers, we’re going to have a lot of trouble delivering the customer service they expect from us.”
That employee shortfall also has been an issue on the manufacturing side, Vasilaros says. “This year we’re really trying to leverage those federal dollars to help fill that need in the industry,” she says. “Boats are largely a U.S.-made product, but you can only expand as much as you can hire. If there’s an opportunity for apprenticeship programs, vocational programs and so forth we can see an expansion of the industry as a whole.”
Differences on trade
The industry also will focus on trade issues. The NMMA has supported both the Transatlantic Trade and Investment Partnership and the Trans-Pacific Partnership. President Donald Trump has withdrawn the United States from both.
“There has been a lot of discussion on NAFTA,” the North American Free Trade Agreement, Vasilaros says. “Mexican and Canadian markets are both really important to the industry. Our position is that we definitely don’t want to withdraw from NAFTA; it’s a very important agreement to the industry.”
The NMMA has been seeking comment from its members to determine what parts of the agreement are working for them and what might be changed. “We’re hoping for a revision rather than a complete redo,” Vasilaros says.
Stakeholders also will focus on familiar issues, such as ethanol and revision of the Renewable Fuel Standard, as well as reauthorizing the Magnuson-Stevens Act so it reflects the growth in and needs of recreational saltwater fishing.
Fishing industry stakeholders will be well represented at ABC, says Jeff Angers, president of the Center for Sportfishing Policy. There is a new opportunity to effect change in the National Oceanic and Atmospheric Administration’s management of saltwater fisheries, he says.
“NOAA Fisheries is ripe for reform, and [U.S. Commerce Secretary] Wilbur Ross is the guy who’s going to do it,” Angers says. “We have an amazing opportunity concurrent with this new administration gaining its sea legs. That opportunity is for the folks that know the most about recreational fishing and boating to be the advocates for our vocation and our avocation.”
Angers says he hopes Trump’s pledge to “drain the swamp” will extend to what he calls corruption in NOAA Fisheries management. “It’s the kind of thing the Trump administration, I think, is not going to stand for.”
Having boating and fishing on the same page to carry a message is very meaningful, Angers says. “What matters less is the specifics of the message as it is the unanimity of the message, and a time when Washington is turned upside-down.”
Infrastructure will be another area of focus for the MRAA, says the organization’s public policy manager, Will Higgins. “We would like to see things happen in the recreational boating sphere, like dredging projects, and developments that can help provide and improve access to the nation’s waterways.”
Some of President Trump’s budget-cut proposals could negatively affect boating and fishing, Higgins says. Those concerns center on the Coast Guard, the Environmental Protection Agency, the Department of the Interior and the Army Corps of Engineers, he says, so educating lawmakers about those effects is important.
The Interior Department is responsible for managing agencies that affect the boating community, including the National Park Service and the U.S. Fish and Wildlife Service. Those departments help provide boating access within the national park system, promoting fish habitat restoration and the disbursement of dollars to state agencies through the $600 million Sport Fish Restoration and Boating Trust Fund, according to the NMMA.
“There are quite a few programs we would be concerned about — the Great Lakes Restoration Initiative is on the chopping block, the NOAA Sea Grant program and others,” Higgins says. “That’s not something we would want to see come to fruition, so I think the recreational boating representatives in D.C. have their work cut out for them when it comes to educating this administration and Congress on how important our industry is, the impact we have and why these programs need to stick around.”
This article originally appeared in the May 2017 issue.