Fishing and Boating Participation Surge, but Outdoor Industry Still Faces Challenges

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Fishing licenses sales are surging, with some states experiencing double-digit increases year-over-year.

That’s according to Lindsey Davis, vice president of the Outdoor Recreation Roundtable, who updated media on the state of outdoor recreation along with key member associations including the American Sportfishing Association and the National Marine Manufacturers Association.

“2020 has been a tumultuous but important year for outdoor recreation,” said Davis on the call. “We were ranked in May by the U.S. Census Bureau as the second-most impacted industry next to food and accommodations, hit 31 percent harder than the national average.”

According to ORR’s May member survey, 88 percent of companies had laid off or furloughed employees, and 94 percent saw a decrease in revenue.

“And astonishingly, all 23,000 companies we surveyed were experiencing difficulty with production and distribution, with 79 percent experiencing a significant impact,” said Davis.

As many retailers were forced to close, online behemoths like Amazon and Target grabbed market share from smaller mom-and-pops, said Davis.

But there were bright spots also — 81 percent of Americans say they’ve spent time outdoors during the pandemic, 31 percent of which for the first time.

Camping is now viewed as the safest way to travel, and the U.S. Parks Service is reporting record visitation.

An August ORR survey also captured some of the recent recovery some businesses have been seeing as Americans flock to socially distant, outdoor activities.

While 91 percent of businesses are still experiencing difficulty with production and distribution, significant impacts have decreased from 79 percent in May to 48 percent in August; 65 percent of businesses are reporting decreases in revenue — versus 94 percent in May — and 22 percent are reporting increases compared to one year ago, Davis said.

Layoffs and furloughs went from 88 percent to 47 percent in August, with 36 percent reporting that they’re now trying to rehire workers — something that has remained a challenge as unemployment benefits sometimes exceed hourly rates, according to

Trade associations that support outdoor recreation are still experiencing decreases in revenue as trade shows and conferences have been canceled or moved to a virtual format — but the number has moved from 90 percent in May to 70 percent said in August.

Fishing license sales have grown substantially, particularly in some states, said Mike Leonard, government affairs vice president for ASA.

For example, Pennsylvania has seen almost a 20 percent increase in fishing license sales; Iowa has seen a 33 percent boost and New Hampshire has experienced a 40 percent year-over-year hike.

“On the industry side, after a rough April and March, we’re seeing fishing license trends translate over into sales as well,” said Leonard. “Pretty much any fishing tackle store, whether it’s a big box or small independent [business], you’re going to see some empty shelves. That’s not all demand, it’s also supply and distribution.”

ASA is encouraged that the growth is long term because there has not only been investment in fishing tackle — Americans are also investing in larger purchases like RVs and boats, leading the group to predict they are more invested in a longer-term lifestyle shift.

Boat sales began experiencing spikes in April and early May, said John Michael Donahue, communications director for NMMA.

The information was anecdotal as summer camps, sport leagues and vacations were being canceled, but the data is proving that people are looking to recreate on the water.

Sales were up 59 percent in May compared to April, and jumped 29 percent year over year.

The most encouraging part is that brisk sales of personal watercraft and other affordable, entry-level boats indicates that more new people are gravitating to the boating lifestyle, said Donahue.

The NMMA has been hearing stories from manufacturers that they have nearly complete boats but are waiting on one part to ship, he said.

“The supply chain challenges pale in comparison to the height of the shutdown, but they’re still a concern,” said Donahue.

ORR is looking to have a recreational package introduced on Capitol Hill that would help address some of the industry challenges that aren’t addressed by federal stimulus and the paycheck protection program, said Davis.

The group hopes that marinas and campgrounds that have contracts for permits with the federal government will get waivers since they are missing revenue, said ORR executive director Jessica Turner.

It also wants to get some protection for the associations that are “really the backbone of the industry,” said Turner.

“Trade shows and conferences have been canceled; all the things that make associations successful, they haven’t been able to do that,” said Turner. “They’re doing a ton of legwork and haven’t gotten any relief. They haven’t been able to access PPP and we’re trying to change that.”

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