Recreational fishing is a big business and its economic impact is equal to or greater than that of commercial fishing. Despite that message from industry advocates to lawmakers at an August meeting in Alaska on saltwater fishing regulations, some don’t think they’ll see change during this gridlock-stunted Congress.
“It is time, perhaps past time, for the real economic importance of recreational fishing to be recognized alongside that of commercial fishing,” says Phil Dyskow, the former Yamaha Marine president who moderated the 2014 Kenai Classic Roundtable on National Recreational Fishing at the Soldotna Regional Sports Complex on Aug. 20.
U.S. Sen. Lisa Murkowski, R-Alaska, co-chairwoman of the Senate Oceans Caucuas, says it is important for Congress “to recognize it is in our best interest to make sure Americans have access to these recreational opportunities.” Despite widespread support for a bipartisan sportsmen’s bill a few months ago, it did not pass the House in the form that fishing advocates hoped to see, Murkowski says.
“We tried to move forward a bipartisan sportsmen’s bill just a month or so ago. It was a bill that enjoyed great support: 46 co-sponsors, evenly divided, Republicans and Democrats. Some good measures were in it, and good measures that were supported by many of you on the panel, many of you that are here today,” Murkowski says.
“We had the Hunting, Fishing, and Recreational Shooting Protection Act, which would exempt lead fishing equipment from the Toxic Substances Act. We also had a measure that I’ve introduced — the Recreational Fishing and Hunting Heritage Opportunities Act — to open up these areas to greater activity. I think it’s something that we can work on collaboratively. But when stuff gets bogged down in the political process, it’s tough to make good things happen. We’re not going to see passage [of the Magnuson-Stevens Fishery Conservation and Management Act] in this Congress.”
Recognition for recreational fishing
Industry advocates have hoped to get language into the act, which governs all saltwater fishing, to specifically include recreational fishing instead of including all fishing under the broad blanket of commercial fishing, as the law traditionally has.
The Commission on Saltwater Recreational Fisheries Management, chaired by Bass Pro Shops founder and CEO Johnny Morris and Maverick Boats president and co-founder Scott Deal, spent 2013 meeting and debating strategies to improve recreational fisheries management. In February the commission issued what it called “A Vision for Managing America’s Saltwater Recreational Fisheries.”
“Part of the process that I’ve done over the last year plus on [the Magnuson-Stevens Act] is to make sure that all sides are heard, that we make sure we talk about commercial and we talk about sports and rec — and also I would add, if I can, just a third element, and that’s the issue of subsistence, specifically for Alaska,” says U.S. Sen. Mark Begich, D-Alaska, who chairs the Subcommittee on Oceans, Atmosphere, Fisheries and Coast Guard, the panel from which a reauthorization bill would emerge in the Senate.
The absence of a national recreational fishing policy has created “crisis conditions” throughout the nation, Dyskow says. To resolve the issues that have developed and balance the user groups, Dyskow says, the country needs a national policy.
The recreational fishing and boating community is expressing collective disappointment after a saltwater fishing bill in the House of Representatives failed to address the community’s top priorities. The Magnuson-Stevens reauthorization bill did not include many of the top priorities of the recreational saltwater fishing industry.
Key stakeholders had hoped that more of the language in the Morris-Deal Commission report would be in the bill. However, the Strengthening Fishing Communities and Increasing Flexibility in Fisheries Management Act (H.R. 4742) disappointed many in the recreational fishing and boating community. U.S. Rep. Doc Hastings, R-Wash., is chairman of the House Natural Resources Committee.
“While we appreciate chairman Doc Hastings’ interest and efforts in Magnuson-Stevens Act reauthorization, we would like to have seen more done in this bill to address the needs of the recreational fishing community,” American Sportfishing Association president and CEO Mike Nussman said at the time. “This bill includes several provisions that we support, such as easing the strict implementation of annual catch limits and improving stock assessments for data-poor fisheries, but unfortunately our top priorities are not meaningfully addressed.”
“We were all disappointed, especially here, because we were hopeful this would get pushed a little bit further,” Mercury Marine spokesman Lee Gordon says of that version of the bill. “Unfortunately it seems like [some of the needs of the recreational fishing industry] got put on the back burner. We were cautiously optimistic that the election year wouldn’t factor in, but we’re hearing that played a huge role.”
Magnuson bill: a second draft
In Washington, D.C., lawmakers have completed the second draft of a Magnuson-Stevens reauthorization bill. Begich expressed optimism that Congress will finish work on the act by year’s end. “Maybe I’m a little more optimistic — maybe it’s my naiveness of six years only in the Senate — I’m looking forward to trying to get this thing done before the end of the year,” Begich says. “It’s going to be tough. But I think where we are today, remember the first draft we had, there was a lot of issues and that’s why we called it a discussion draft.”
“We’ve got some great input and some language that we’ve been able to start moving into the MSA reauthorization. We’re in our second draft, and my co-partner on this is ranking member Sen. Rubio, which is actually interesting, from Alaska to Florida,” Begich says. “It’s an amazing combination because we’re both committed to getting a piece of legislation moving because we think it’s so important to understand the value of our fisheries. And again, when you think of the economic impact, you gave some incredible numbers. I think we sometimes underestimate, to be frank with you, the value of it, of what’s going on in the recreational end, and commercial and subsistence’s economic value of the fisheries.”
Congress does not focus on the nation’s recreational economy, which is a problem for fishing, Nussman says. “One thing we don’t talk about in D.C. … is recreation policy. The fact is, the federal government is an incredibly large provider of recreation, but they don’t really know it or acknowledge it quite often. They sort of back into it. We’ve got all this land, all this water … but they don’t focus on the dollars that come from it or the opportunity that comes from it,” Nussman says.
Recreational anglers aren’t very good fishermen, Nussman says. “They only do it, on the average, 10 times a year. For us to be successful, we need abundant fish stocks out there. We need a lot of fish in the water. We want healthy stocks. If we don’t have healthy stocks, it’s awfully hard for anglers to be successful and the industries that depend on those anglers to be successful.
“We want NMFS, the National Marine Fisheries Service, and their management to produce the full range of economic — of benefits that come from recreational fishing; the economic, the social and the conservation benefits. And we want our resources, our natural resources, our fishery resources to be managed in a way that brings about the greatest benefit to the nation, not just sort of, ‘Well, we’ve always done it this way, so we’re going to continue to do it this way.’ ”
Recreational activities are inherently different from commercial activities, Nussman says, adding that it would be like imposing the same regulations on a person growing tomatoes in the backyard as on an agribusiness. “It just doesn’t make a lot of sense,” he says.
Recreational fishing’s dollar value
Americans spend nearly $37 billion directly on boating products each year, says Thom Dammrich, president of the National Marine Manufacturers Association. “It’s an American industry of about 35,000 companies that employ just under 340,000 people. And you can do a little arithmetic and quickly figure out that there’s a lot of small businesses in the recreational boating and fishing industry. In fact, 97 percent of all boat manufacturers are small businesses.”
Americans took 300 million boating trips in 2012, spending 3 billion hours on the water, Dammrich says, citing Coast Guard data. “This is a big business. Boating alone drives $83 billion in annual spending, $40 billion in annual labor income.”
Some “confusing and misleading statistics” came from the National Marine Fisheries Service in a report titled “Fisheries Economics in the United States in 2012,” Dyskow says. Despite an NMFS attempt to correct the data, the report was not reissued and the misleading data are still out there, he says.
The original report correctly said the value of saltwater recreational fishing is $58 billion annually, Dyskow says. The same report said the value of commercial fishing is $141 billion.
“So on the surface it looked like commercial fishing had a far larger recreational or a far larger economic value than recreational fishing, but the devil is always in the details,” he says. “And that number included the value of imported seafood.”
Considering that 92 percent of seafood consumed in the United States is imported, that accounts for most of the number, Dyskow says. “When you correct that report and take out the imported seafood, the value of commercial fishing was reduced to $51 billion, according to NMFS. So $58 billion on the recreational side, $51 billion on the commercial side.”
Begich says it became clear to him while chairing the committee that the National Oceanic and Atmospheric Administration didn’t understand the economic power of recreational saltwater fishing and the reach it has when factoring in all of the purchases, such as gas, equipment and travel. “Part of our MSA reauthorization is to try to get them more equipped to understand their job and responsibility, to understand this economic engine.”
“Senator Murkowski and Senator Begich understand fisheries because their state depends upon both commercial and recreational anglers,” says Martin Peters, government relations manager at Yamaha Marine Group, which sponsors the annual roundtable.
“Our task as an industry is to make sure other members of Congress understand the economic impact of recreational fishing, not just on coastal communities, but on every state in the U.S. Everyone in the industry — dealers, boatbuilders and suppliers — have to work to make this happen.”
This article originally appeared in the October 2014 issue.