At this year’s Miami International Boat Show, the keynote address by National Marine Manufacturers Association president Thom Dammrich centered on three initiatives that the trade group plans to devote additional resources to going forward. The first is retaining and recruiting boat owners. The second is addressing workforce issues.
The industry has heard about those two initiatives for at least a year. Number three, while it has been in play for a while, was only recently announced: an advocacy offensive.
“If you’re not at the table, you’re on the menu,” Dammrich said, referring to the necessity of playing “offense, rather than defense” with legislators and regulators.The importance of taking initiatives on advocacy has been hard-learned, says Nicole Vasilaros, NMMA’s senior vice president of government and legal affairs. “For years, we just tried to stop bad things from happening,” Vasilaros says. “Several years ago, we came together and asked ourselves, What do we want as an industry? And just as importantly, What do we not want to happen to us?”
That gathering happened after the Morris-Deal Commission, chaired by Bass Pro Shops founder Johnny Morris and Maverick Boats CEO Scott Deal, came out with its report on the future of saltwater fisheries management. From that 2014 report came an advocacy effort that, in fits and starts, resulted in the passage of the Modern Fish Act. The legislation passed unanimously in the U.S. Senate, and by a vote of 350-11 in the U.S. House of Representatives. President Trump signed it into law this past December.
The law’s enactment followed a prolonged lobbying effort by the NMMA, American Sportfishing Association, Coastal Conservation Association and Congressional Sportsmen’s Foundation, among others. It was the industry’s signature advocacy success for 2018. “It showed what we could accomplish if we had a vision and worked together,” Vasilaros says.
For Dammrich, the Modern Fish Act was the culmination of an advocacy strategy the NMMA board adopted in 2004, a decade after the luxury tax decimated new-boat sales. “We recognized back then that the biggest threats came from government actions,” Dammrich says. “In addition to the 535 members of Congress who can legislate boating, there are 13 federal agencies we have to interact with on a regular basis. I’ve never seen an industry that is under threat from so many directions.”
Dammrich says the NMMA has put additional resources into advocacy efforts during the past 18 months. The association expanded its communications team in Washington, D.C., and hired new staff to work on state issues.
“You can see the difference already,” Dammrich says. “We had a Congressional Boating Caucus briefing in early March, and the representatives spoke glowingly about their support of the industry. At another event hosted by the Outdoor Recreation Roundtable, seven members of Congress voiced their overwhelming support of recreation. We’re getting Congress to recognize that boating is a big business and creates a lot of jobs.”
Vasilaros says the success is part of Dammrich’s legacy in leading NMMA. “It has been Thom’s vision to get everyone to work together in what he calls an ecosystem,” she says. “I think the presence of boat manufacturers with Modern Fish really helped us reach a wider group of legislators and cultivate a larger pool of support.”
U.S. Sen. Cory Booker, D-New Jersey, and U.S. Sen. Gary Peters, D-Michigan, signed on as sponsors of The Modern Fish Act following visits to the Viking Yacht Co. facility in New Jersey and the Tiara Yachts headquarters in Michigan.
“The plant visits helped them understand the importance of boating to their states,” Vasilaros says. “Michigan isn’t a coastal, saltwater state, but Peters saw that Tiara could be impacted by recreational fishing policies. Booker saw that boating employs a lot of people, and it’s not just for rich people. They were able to connect the dots.”
Dammrich’s ability to build coalitions extends beyond the boating industry to groups such as the Outdoor Recreation Roundtable, which deals with federal agencies that affect boating.
“We’re now meeting with presidential cabinet officials and working across both sides of the aisle in Congress, so we have much greater access than we’ve had before,” Dammrich says. “We’re preparing to talk to the platform committees of both parties for the 2020 elections.”
The NMMA’s message to lawmakers, Dammrich says, is “that boating is a uniquely American industry that creates a lot of jobs.” That message, he says, will help the industry establish itself as a serious component of the U.S. economy. “We’re not going to react to what others are doing anymore,” he adds, referring the “offense” strategy. “We’re going to actively seek legislation that is beneficial to the industry.”
The NMMA also plans to involve itself more closely on state and local issues. “There are issues like titling in the states, CARB in California, access in state parks,” Dammrich says. “That’s why we’ve hired two more staff members to work on those issues.”
The majority of marine trade associations lets the NMMA do the industry’s heavy lifting on national issues. Peter Schrappen, vice president and director of government affairs for the Northwest Marine Trade Association, says about 90 percent of his group’s efforts go toward state and local issues. “They can be all-consuming,” he says.
The Marine Retailers Association of the Americas has partnered with the NMMA on advocacy, and merged its political action committee with the NMMA’s to form BoatPAC. “I’m not aware of an issue where MRAA and NMMA haven’t seen eye to eye,” says Matt Gruhn, MRAA president. “It’s a collaborative relationship where we support the industry with one louder voice.”
The NMMA and MRAA also organized Boating United, a coalition that notifies 55,000 people in the industry about issues such as E15 fuel and trade tariffs. “We can mobilize people to send emails, tweets and make phone calls with a few clicks,” Vasilaros says. “Five years ago, we didn’t have that part of the process. It really helps reinforce our message to legislators.”
Vasilaros says the NMMA plans to form coalitions with other industries, and Dammrich hopes to see more NMMA members join the advocacy offensive.
“On a recent survey, a little less than half indicated that they had taken some action for advocacy,” he says. “We need to increase that number.”
This article originally appeared in the April 2019 issue.