Lou Martinez isn’t giving up fishing from his kayak, but he realized last summer that kayak angling didn’t always afford him the experience he wanted.
So in September, the Delaware Paddlesports fishing team member and YouTuber bought a new 21-foot Skeeter ZX250 bass boat. He liked the standard features including the Minn Kota trolling motor and 250-hp Yamaha outboard.
“First and foremost, I love kayaking, I love the experience of fishing from a kayak,” Martinez says in his video blog, BeyondTheBounds.
“I want to take trips with my wife, my dogs — those are my family — and just go,” says Martinez, who lives near Annapolis. “The other thing is the social aspect of it. I actually want to take my friends out fishing with me. Some of them don’t have all the gear. It’s kind of a barrier to entry if you think about it.”
The symbiotic relationship between boating and fishing is indisputable: Almost half of people who fish, 48.7 percent, fish from a boat, and 83 percent of active anglers are also active boaters, according to a 2016 study by the National Marine Manufacturers Association, Discover Boating and the Recreational Boating and Fishing Foundation.
Some, like Martinez, want to be more social than is possible with a kayak. Other anglers that want to grow their fishing expertise and venture offshore with a new boat. The industry’s growing awareness of people like him has led to boat and fishing equipment manufacturers launching angler recruitment and retention initiatives, and requests for legislative changes to federal saltwater fishing rules that they say overlook recreational anglers.
Recreational boating and fishing groups have spent years gathering data on the economic impact of both sports. During the past year, several outdoor recreational industry associations formed the Outdoor Recreation Roundtable, representing RVs, motorcycles, snow sports industries, hunting and archery.
And for 2016 — for the first time — the U.S. Department of Commerce’s Bureau of Economic Analysis recognized outdoor recreation’s contribution to the overall gross domestic product, and began measuring how outdoor pursuits ripple through the U.S. economy.
Outdoor recreation contributed $673 billion to the economy, accounting for 2 percent of the overall GDP, the bureau found, making recreation a larger contributor than sectors including agriculture, mining, petroleum and coal, and computer and electronic products. The bureau also stated that outdoor recreation’s economic impact grew 3.8 percent, well above the overall U.S. economy’s 2.8 percent growth that year.
The $673 billion, however, excludes some line items that are included in other sectors; guided tours and charters, for example, are categorized as travel. Industry data often show larger figures than the bureau’s is because some of those ancillary categories are added into industry numbers, while for GDP purposes the numbers must be compared as apples to apples.
The bureau found that the boating and fishing category contributed $37 billion to the U.S. economy, making it the largest outdoor recreational activity after motorized vehicles, which accounted for $59.4 billion of gross output.
“That’s really starting to shift how people think about outdoor recreation,” says Mike Nussman, past president and CEO of the American Sportfishing Association. “Members of Congress always got that it’s wholesome and good for you, but it’s impossible to ignore the economics. People are getting a greater appreciation of how important outdoor recreation is from a jobs perspective.”
The data also showed that boating and fishing nearly doubled the rate of outdoor recreational growth as a whole. The sector had one of the largest growth rates of outdoor recreation in 2016, just behind bicycling, generating $38.2 billion. It saw a 4 percent increase from the year prior, and a 5.4 percent growth rate from 2012 to 2016, says the bureau’s communication chief, Lucas Hitt.
“It’s clearly one of the driving subsets of growth of outdoor recreational activities,” Hitt says.
Cultivating a new generation of anglers
Even despite those figures, the Recreational Boating and Fishing Foundation — which has seen a nearly 20 percent rise in fishing participation during the past decade — still wants to grow the sport beyond its core demographic of white, male baby boomers.
“We’d be in a lot worse shape if the baby boomer generation wasn’t wealthier and healthier than in previous generations,” says RBFF president Frank Peterson. “But as a member of that generation myself, that’s not a sustainable plan moving forward.”
The foundation launched First Catch Centers as a pilot program in Texas and Pennsylvania this year to fish with children who might not otherwise try the activity.
“All youth organized sports have an initiative that standardizes the way sport is taught, with multiple opportunities within a community,” Peterson says. “It provides skill development over time. We don’t have that. We have programs in states that will get kids out one time, and the mayor comes out and takes a picture, but then it’s over.”
The RBFF and its sponsors are partnering with federal refuge centers to create permanent locations that will let whole families fish several times, so parents can learn with the children and gain confidence to fish on their own.
“Everyone understands the importance of getting youth engaged,” Peterson says. “A lot of times, that’s defined as one-day fishing events, which our research tells us is not enough to get a child really hooked. It takes three or four times of having success to really catch the bug, so we’re helping the states shift from these one-day event scenarios to multiple events for kids and families. The family has got to be involved. If you teach a child to fish with a parent, it’s more likely to happen. All the grant dollars we give out now are for family-focused activities.”
Diversifying the community
Another large effort is targeting groups often underrepresented in the fishing community — Hispanics and women, among others.
The RBFF has converted its Take Me Fishing campaign to focus on Latinos, calling the initiative Vamos a Pescar with guidance from Lopez Negrete Communications, a Houston-based marketing firm that developed a five-year outreach plan. The 59 million Hispanics in the United States have $1.7 trillion of spending power, and are the nation’s fastest-growing population, accounting for about 18 percent overall. More than half of the U.S. Hispanic population is younger than 29.
Women helped drive an 8.2 percent spike in fishing participation during the past five years, and 45 percent of new fishing participants were female last year. Of those, 42 percent were 6 to 12 years old. “Moms are taking their sons and daughters fishing more than dads are,” Peterson says.
The RBFF is considering holding a session focused on women prior to a marketing workshop for state fish and wildlife departments, Peterson says. “We want to ask women attendees to come a little early and run a half-day program on what they’d like to see their agencies doing to support getting more women involved in the sport,” he says. “More than half the people who come to our workshop who work at these agencies are women. The problem is, the agency isn’t always receptive to new ideas.”
Recruitment, retention and reactivation
The RBFF is also homing in on California for recruitment.
“California’s so massive, if we can get them to start increasing fishing participation, that will move the needle,” Peterson says. “You still have massive numbers when you look at the total population of people fishing in California, but when you look at it as a percentage of the overall population, it’s extremely low.”
The RBFF is also hiring a coordinator to help state agencies recruit, retain and reactivate anglers in a program it calls “R3.” And along with several industry associations, the group is trying to get all states to collect more data on people who obtain fishing licenses, to learn how many are new, how many took time off before reactivating, and how many are return anglers.
States such as Georgia saw a dramatic increase in retention of new anglers after stepping up communications with people who got fishing licenses. In 2015, the RBFF teamed up with the Georgia Department of Natural Resources’ wildlife division to pioneer an Angler Retention Pilot Program. The results showed that an email program generated a 4.7 percent increase in license renewal rate, or an additional 1,448 licenses sold. Based on the Georgia program’s success, the RBFF created a toolkit for all state agencies.
Overall fishing participation grew to 47 million in 2017, helping the RBFF near its goal of “60 in 60” — having 60 million anglers in 60 months. During the past five years, participation was up 8.2 percent.
The Sport Fishing Restoration and Boating Trust Fund reported that while hunting and shooting were down 35 percent during the final quarter of 2017, fishing and boating were up 5 percent.
“October, November and December are not very strong fishing and boating months, so I’m very encouraged by the fact that all the different metrics out there on the health of our industries are showing upswings,” Peterson says.
The RBFF has also tried to increase awareness that licensing fees are allocated to the environment and conservation.
“The more people who buy licenses to fish, or put gas in those boats, we’re generating revenue that’s used to protect those waterways we play on,” Peterson says. “You don’t get that out of golf, bowling, tennis, or baseball, as much as I love baseball. There’s a higher purpose. That’s something that’s important to us. It’s not only to see joy on kids’ faces when they catch a fish, it’s knowing that the water they’re playing on is a lot cleaner than it was.”
Curtailed fishing seasons
Some regions face an uphill battle because of strict limitations on fishing seasons that sometimes drop allowable catch times to a few days. Florida fishermen and marine businesses have been impacted negatively by myriad state and federal regulations, says Ed Killer, who covers marine environment and industry for TC Palm, a USA Today-affiliated newspaper in southeast Florida.
While government agencies focus on resource conservation, the same agencies often stifle the marine economy in coastal communities — even though major conservation grants allocated through the Sport Fish Restoration Boat and Trust Fund come from fishing license fees and taxes on sportfishing equipment, fishing tackle, yachts and pleasure craft, and gasoline, Killer says.
Those who pay the fees sometimes say the government is overreaching. For instance, charter-boat operators say red snapper regulations in the South Atlantic are too restrictive, given the species’ abundance.
“Red snapper regulations in the South Atlantic have been a pressing point since the fishery was shut down in 2007 due to overfishing, according to stock assessments,” Killer says. “Yet many charter boat operators fishing in the red snapper’s traditional range — from offshore of Sebastian, Fla. north to the North Carolina Outer Banks — claimed there are reefs where they cannot catch anything but genuine red snapper. How is it a fish which is deemed to be scarce by regulators caught so regularly by anglers?”
The Magnuson-Stevens Act reauthorization in 2007, signed by then-President George W. Bush, layered on top of the red snapper harvest prohibition added a four-month seasonal closure on nine species of grouper including gag, red, black and scamp caught in waters between 60 and 160 feet deep. That closure runs January through April, the height of the coastal Florida tourist season.
Whenever the recreational annual catch limit is met for any reef species such as black sea bass or triggerfish, anglers have even fewer species to fish for.
“Conversations and interviews I’ve had with anglers indicate there is no will to go fishing, no will to hire captains or buy a boat if they cannot bring home anything for the dinner table,” Killer says. “While catch-and-release fishing is excellent, many anglers who fish on party boats and charter boats also would love to bring home a Ziploc bag full of fish fillets.”
Based on angler surveys conducted by federal fishery managers, if dolphin offshore or snook and trout inshore were ever to receive closures, it could further hamper an already fragile arrangement for fishermen and the businesses that depend upon them, including boat dealerships, manufacturers, tackle shops and marinas, Killer says
Modern Fish Act
The entire recreational marine business ecosystem relies on anglers to thrive, so all marine businesses should advocate for sound fishing policies, says Yamaha Marine president Ben Speciale, citing red snapper seasons in the Gulf region that have been as short as three days.
“We feel good about the future of our industry now, but I don’t think we’re selling enough new boats this year,” Speciale says. “I think if we can see a longer snapper season, we would sell more.”
Speciale says he doesn’t mind shortened seasons when sound data shows that fish stocks need to be rebuilt. But he and other advocates take issue with the fact that recreational anglers, who catch a few fish in a day, should be treated the same way as commercial anglers, who often use nets to catch hundreds of fish, potentially species they aren’t targeting, and whose catch is measured in pounds rather than by fish. The need for different rules has become apparent in the past decade, he says, because powerful motors, integrated technology, fishfinders and navigational equipment have increased recreational access to big offshore gamefishing, creating a vibrant offshore fishing industry.
A reauthorization of the Magnuson-Stevens Act could begin to treat recreational and commercial anglers differently, and the Modern Fish Act, which is expected to move to the U.S. House and Senate floors this spring, would do that, says Mike Leonard, conservation director of the American Sportfishing Association.
“It is remarkable and it all happened in a fairly short amount of time,” Leonard says. “There was a lot of to work go into that, but really, that last year or two we had the whole community work together and with the same goals in mind. We have channeled the power of our industry, and its prominence. It really has been all about telling the same story, and it’s starting to pay dividends.”
The Modern Fish Act takes several recommendations from the Morris-Deal Commission, named for co-chairs Johnny Morris, founder and CEO of Bass Pro Shops, and Scott Deal, president of Maverick Boat Group. That report, issued in 2014, made six recommendations for treating recreational fishermen differently.
The fundamental challenge in current federal fisheries management law is that it was designed to manage large-scale industrial fisheries. The main issues addressed in the Modern Fish Act are allocation, exempted fishing permits and limited access privilege programs.
“The stars are aligning this Congress to reform federal fisheries management in a way that will properly recognize recreational fishing under our nation’s primary marine fishing law,” says Center for Sportfishing Policy president Jeff Angers.
Another part of the uphill battle to pushing through legislation that alters the MSA is the idea that recreational anglers aren’t concerned about fisheries.
“We continue to care about conservation, and everything in this bill keeps conservation in the forefront,” Leonard says. “If something were to go wrong, and a fish stock takes a wrong turn, recreational fishing has been first to come to the table and say something needs to be done. In every other fishery management context, when you have healthier fisheries, that means better fishing access and better fishing opportunities. Federal fisheries management is the only situation I can see where one hasn’t led to the other.”
The legislation, he adds, is not an overhaul of federal marine fisheries management. “All those changes center around adapting the existing system and recognizing that commercial fishing is different than recreational fishing, and they should be treated differently,” says Leonard. “The innovative management approaches being discussed aren’t about simply allowing us to kill more fish, but rather allowing access that’s better aligned with the actual abundance of fish stocks instead of overly precautionary guesses,” he says. “That’s not anti-conservation. It’s anti-mismanagement.”
Anglers Journal TV host John Brownlee agrees. “As much as detractors would like to employ hysterics and hyperbole to maintain the status quo, the provisions championed by the recreational angling community are not an attempt to roll back conservation-minded regulations,” he wrote in the Washington Examiner. “They are the culmination of many years of work by a huge stakeholder group to address very real shortcomings in how the nation manages its marine fisheries.”
Saltwater fishing and landlocked states
The Modern Fish Act has gained momentum not only with data about economic impact, but also as lawmakers realize its impact is felt across the country.
Speciale, testifying at a Senate subcommittee hearing on the Magnuson-Stevens Act, talked about Georgia-based Yamaha’s five marine manufacturing facilities in the country. The American arm of the marine business employs more than 1,000 workers in the United States — many in states that don’t touch an ocean.
Yamaha Precision Propellers Inc. produces more than 60,000 steel propellers a year at its Indianapolis plant that employs 130 people.
“More than a third of those props are used in saltwater boat applications, despite the fact that they are manufactured in a landlocked state,” Speciale says. “The economic impact of our propeller plant doesn’t end in Indianapolis. Let’s take a look at the raw materials that go into those Yamaha propellers.”
Waxes come from Muskegon, Mich, and Cleveland. Stainless steel comes as ingots from Oil City, Penn., and Muskegon. Minerals used in the alloys are mined in places including Climax, Colo, a mining town about 950 miles from salt water. Nickel used in the alloy typically comes from Michigan’s upper peninsula.
“Furthermore, once the propellers have left our Indianapolis plant, they go on to support small businesses in all 50 states through our boatbuilder and dealer networks,” Speciale says.
Kilgore, Texas, home to Yamaha-owned Skeeter boat company, is far from the coastline, Speciale said.
“With 281 employees, Skeeter is now the second-largest private employer in Kilgore, ranking just behind General Dynamics and just ahead of Halliburton,” Speciale said.
“The truth is that many of the raw materials and semi-finished products used for saltwater recreational fishing boat production come from factories, mines and suppliers in the interior of our great nation,” Speciale says.
This article originally appeared in the June 2018 issue.