It might not occur to people in the recreational boating and fishing industry to reach out to their local fish and wildlife agency, but Florida Fish and Wildlife Conservation Commission executive director Nick Wiley is urging them to do just that.
As president of the Association of Fish and Wildlife Agencies, Wiley says there is a growing awareness of how vital outdoor recreation is to the funding of the agencies’ missions.
“I think all sides are waking up and seeing that we’ve got to be closer … and working more effectively together on all these challenges,” Wiley says.
So his agency has made it a goal to get into communities and focus on R3 — recruitment, retention and reactivation — of lapsed hunters, anglers and boaters. Though people sometimes assume those recreations are in conflict with conservation, Wiley says the opposite is true.
“Getting people out boating and fishing helps people understand how important these natural resources are,” Wiley says. Not only that, but many programs run by the agency receive funding from excise taxes on boats, equipment, fuel and gear. “It kind of brings it back around to how critical support from the industry is,” he says.
Wiley is a certified wildlife biologist. He has more than 31 years of professional experience in fish and wildlife management, mostly in Florida.
He is a Georgia native and has a bachelor’s degree in biology from Georgia Southern University and a master’s degree in wildlife science from Auburn University.
Q : Can you start by giving us some of your background and tell us how you became involved in Florida’s conservation efforts?
A: I grew up out on the water and in the woods hunting [and] fishing from canoes and jonboats to saltwater fishing boats. I decided I wanted to be a biologist and work with fish and wildlife. I wanted to work in the conservation world. You really can’t [do that] without having a good relationship and connection to the recreational fishing and boating industry. Everything is connected in the conservation world.
Q: How does your office work with stakeholders and elected officials to address some of the issues around boating, fishing and Florida’s waterways? I know for some, conservation seems contrary to boating, fishing and hunting.
A: Some people on the surface don’t see how everything is so connected. The industry that provides equipment for recreation is so critical, and in Florida the connections are stronger. Our economy is tourism-based, and a lot of the tourism is based on outdoor recreation — getting out on the water.
We clearly are the fishing capital of the world, and we can back that up with a number of statistics, from the number of licenses sold, and boats, and the number of days we allow people to fish, and the types of fishing opportunities. The connections are really very strong in Florida.
That means we have to work really close with all the stakeholders in the industry that provide the opportunities and equipment and supplies and gear — from boats all the way down to the fishing lures. Honestly, 10 to 15 years ago, we weren’t so focused and well connected, and our agencies made a concerted effort to start being more oriented toward our stakeholders and working with people rather than sitting in our government building making rules and being bureaucratic.
Q: Can you tell us about that outreach? How do you go from being more of a government agency to a community partner?
A: It’s almost a cultural change. It’s about building relationships, making connections. You’re really establishing a network of relationships with stakeholders and the industry. We’ve embedded it as part of our strategic goals and initiatives as one of our priorities — building those relationships, strengthening those relationships — we communicate like crazy.
We’ve got a system now called Gov Delivery (https://public.govdelivery.com/accounts/FLFFWCC/subscriber/new) on our website. Anyone can sign up, and they can select any topic they care about, and we push information out constantly about issues and decisions and proposals, ideas and problems. We have formal and informal advisory groups, working groups; if we have a problem to solve, one of the first things we do is form a working group and bring in people who are going to be affected so we can get their ideas.
For example, right now we’re dealing with whether to allow some limited takes of Atlantic goliath grouper, and we’re doing workshops to get input from the public.
Q: I understand you have championed efforts to attract Florida residents to fishing and boating. What are some of the steps you’ve taken?
A: To me, it’s a team effort. In the past we focused on selling fishing licenses. That is much too narrow; we have to be much broader. We have developed relationships with associations like the American Sportfishing Association, who sponsored Keep Florida Fishing, and the Recreational Boating and Fishing Foundation. We work with partners to design programs that keep people interested and elevate awareness.
The thing about Florida that’s really cool is, Florida sells itself. The fishing and boating opportunities we have — the awareness is off the charts already. So a lot of what we have to do is to make it easier and less expensive for people to come enjoy fishing and boating.
We work hard on making sure they know where the access points are. A lot of times just providing a boat ramp is not enough unless you really get the word out on where it is and how you can find it. We work with all different forms of media, and organizations like RBFF — they’ve done some good work on helping map out the locations of boat ramps.
Then the other thing is we’ve really aggressively started focusing in the last few years on R3. We call it R3 — recruitment, retention and reactivation. It’s three big areas of maintaining people’s interest in boating and fishing. You really have to have a strategic, smart, systematic approach. You’ve got to look at recruitment through one lens, retention through another lens and reactivation through yet another lens and develop your programs for that.
One of the things we’ve done on the recruitment side is developing more programs for kids and families. The other thing we’re doing is looking at diversity and designing recruitment programs that get into the Hispanic community to increase interest and diversity among minority groups in boating and fishing.
Q: How long have you been taking that R3 approach, and do you see it working?
A: We’ve been focused probably more on recruitment, although we are doing some retention work, but for 10, 20 years we’ve known we needed to work to maintain hunting and angling. Here’s the thing — we know the typical angler is an older white male, age 40 to 50. The vast majority of people who boat and fish are in that category. And that’s not going to sustain boating and fishing unless we can diversify and get younger people involved.
We’re already seeing it happen in hunting. We’ve lost millions of hunters over the last few years. Now on the fishing and boating side, we’ve been fortunate. I think a lot of the efforts have paid off already, and we’ve just really honestly over the last few years started figuring out what works and what doesn’t.
Q: So what are some specific things that are working to draw people in?
A: When you think about it, you’re covering a whole lot of different arenas. It starts with building awareness and then letting people have a safe way to try it. Then they might have a way to connect with other people that are doing it so they can be mentored. And then they graduate to the point where they buy their own boat and gear and they’re doing it independently and helping other people get involved. We design programs along that spectrum that help. Then, those that are doing it, you’ve got to keep them interested.
Our Youth Conservation Centers Network is a network of about 300 partners statewide — anywhere from county and city recreation departments to non-government associations, conservation groups, community-oriented groups. We formed a network and brought them in and we encourage them to do, say, a fish camp for kids, or a fishing event for kids, and we’ll help provide rods and reels through industry partnerships, we’ll help provide canoes or jonboats and motors, with partnership support from the industry.
That’s where those partnerships with the industry are so important. The old model with state agencies often was, we’d use our own staff, host an event, but we could only do a few a year, and it was not moving the needle. We’ve now established a network of over 300 partners that are delivering these events in local communities. It expands our reach, and those are the types of things that I think are starting to work and getting people more excited.
It kind of brings it back around to how critical support from the industry is. And then, when you look at all this, this is all conservation. Anglers and hunters have always been first and foremost when it comes to taking care of our resources because they love those resources.
Q: How do you talk to conservationists who have traditionally seen boating and fishing in conflict with those efforts? I sense there’s still a perception, though it’s improving, that these pursuits are contrary.
A: You’re right. Those perceptions are out there. People just are not aware of the tremendous financial and economic support for conservation that comes from these industries that sell products that allow people to have access. It ought to make sense. It really ought to be obvious that for a business that makes its money selling boats or equipment, it has to be a part of their business model to help take care of those resources if they want to keep selling that equipment.
It’s been really impressive to me how they’re always on the front end of technology and on the front end of financing conservation-friendly approaches.
Q: What would you say to some of those business owners who feel they don’t have the time or ability to be engaged?
A: On the time thing I would tell them that, one, I totally understand they’ve got to be focused on taking care of their company, but they at least can support some of these associations that are active. But I would urge them to at least be aware of resource and conservation issues that could affect their business models and be strategic about it.
They should be aware to the point that that they can engage when they need to. They don’t need to be engaged in every little issue coming up, but there are times when an issue rises up that’s so big that when they come, their voice will be heard. They just need to be aware and let their associations help keep them informed about when to engage. It doesn’t have to be something that takes a lot of time.
Q: What are some of the other pressing waterway issues in Florida, and how is your organization helping to address those?
A Working with manatees is an ongoing challenge. The boating community’s been very engaged and very good about helping us find a balance between protecting manatees and also providing good access for boating.
The cool news is, manatees have been reclassified. They’ve been upgraded; they’re no longer “endangered.” They’re “threatened” now. We still need to make sure we take care of manatees, but our last surveys have them at record highs — 6,600 manatees, at the very least — and that’s something to celebrate. The boating industry has been a key partner in helping us find that balance.
Water quality is always going to be an issue for us. We’re always going to be working on dealing with invasive exotic vegetation, like hydrilla, and how to spray it so you keep waterways open. We’re in charge of the spraying program, and sometimes people get upset if they think we’ve sprayed too much because it affects the bass fishing or the waterfowl hunting. So we’ve got to find the right balance there. A lot of what we do is finding the right balance.
The legislature just dealt with issues we’ve had ongoing for years regarding anchoring and mooring — providing good, safe places for people to anchor while protecting the environment, not allowing for potential environmental issues associated with unregulated mooring, like illegal pumping.
We piloted programs to see what kind of laws can help communities manage anchoring and mooring using a framework so that it’s not a hodgepodge of rules and regulations that confuse and intimidate boaters.
Another problem is derelict vessels. The legislature and the industry have been working to get us funding every year. It’s not enough; it’s a big deal for communities.When we have hurricanes come through, it really highlights the problem of derelict vessels. It’s a legal challenge because you’ve got to be careful not to infringe on people’s rights when you declare something derelict.
Q: Can you discuss some of the challenges around saltwater fisheries and the balance between commercial and recreational fishing? I know red snapper has been a contentious issue in the Gulf.
A: It’s complicated because in Florida we have lot of marine fisheries issues. We’ve got inshore fisheries within state waters. On the Atlantic side we’ve got state waters out three nautical miles; on the Gulf side we’ve got state waters out nine nautical miles. If you look at our near-shore fisheries — red drum, spotted sea trout, flounder, snook — a lot of those species are really doing well and provide kind of the backbone of our fishing opportunities on the coast. We’ve been really careful working with the fishing community and boating community as we developed those regs. We manage those species for abundance in a lot of cases.
The challenge comes when you go offshore more when it comes to reef fish like red snapper and grouper. Those are fish that people like to catch, but they also really like to eat them. They like to eat the near-shore fish, but they particularly like to eat the reef fish.
People want to catch those and bring them in, and out past nine miles on the Gulf, they’re under federal management, so we have to work through the fishery council on the Atlantic and federal side — two different councils. That’s complicated because you’ve got about 16 different representatives from multiple states in the Gulf council, and then all the way up the South Atlantic states. You’ve got representatives from the commercial and recreational sectors, and different groups from government, so it’s hard to balance and bring together everybody.
I think the system has been good in some ways, but there are some glaring issues like red snapper. I was up at Congress testifying a couple of weeks ago about the framework, the Magnuson-Stevens Act, that kind of drives all the federal fisheries management. We believe it’s too proscriptive, too rigid; the catch limits are not well designed for the recreational fishery because it’s based on how many pounds are caught.
As red snapper have gotten bigger, the quotas are based on poundage, so the fishermen are reaching quotas catching fewer fish. So there are less fish to go around and the stocks build because you catch bigger fish. So you get punished for success. That system is not working for recreational fishing, and we feel it should be modified to allow for the way recreational fisheries could and should be managed, like we do with our near-shore fisheries.
We don’t set poundage quotas for sea trout or red drum; we set size limits, we set season limits, we’re really careful about the seasons. We stay close to our anglers and listen to them, and if they’re concerned, we address that. We monitor the fishery so we know whether it’s growing or not or achieving the goals that we set for it.
It’s just a different system, and we’d love to see those lessons learned applied to the federal fisheries system. That’s something we’re really pushing for.
Q: I know boating safety is another big issue for you. Can you talk about some of the initiatives there?
A: We are Florida’s state agency in charge of boating and boating safety, and with our busy waterways, it is key. We have over 850 sworn law enforcement officers and one of their primary jobs is patrolling waterways, and the primary mission when they’re patrolling is to keep people safe.
We do special operations like Operation Dry Water, where we get out and make sure people are aware they shouldn’t be drinking and boating. For some reason they know it’s not OK to drink and drive, but they think it’s OK to drink and drive a boat.
We support and promote National Safe Boating Week — we do a lot of social media outreach, press conferences and work with youth, teaching kids about boating safety. We have active classes, online classes, hands-on classes. We are really aggressive. And again there’s another place where we get federal funding that comes from industry excise taxes to help us pay and keep people safe when they’re boating.
Q: It’s got to be a huge undertaking there because, as you say, the waterways are so busy. And then when something tragic does happen, there is typically some type of legislation introduced to try to prevent those types of accidents, but often tied to a sort of regulation. Do you work on those issues?
A: We work hand in hand with our state legislature, and they are careful and responsive. But Florida’s philosophy is we don’t want to have too many regulations. We only want what’s necessary to keep people safe. Florida’s really careful in that regard and not quick to adopt a new regulation unless it’s really clearly necessary. We know if you go too far down that path you end up harming the industry and harming opportunities for people to have access.
But, you know, good can come from that. As you know, we had two young boys that were lost off the coast a few years back, and that got a lot of attention. Well, as a result, we’ve done a lot of work and have gotten a lot of support for encouraging people to buy emergency beacons to put on their boats. It’s really helped elevate awareness. If anything good can come from something really terrible, it’s helped elevate awareness about emergency beacons. I wouldn’t let my family go out on a boat, anywhere on a lake or offshore, for sure, without an emergency beacon on their boat or on their life jacket.
Q: Is there anything else your organization is taking on that is of interest to the recreational boating industry that we didn’t cover?
A: There’s so much going on. We’re not taking it on, but we’re watching carefully the ethanol issues. We want to be a good partner; the industry is there to help us when we need help, so we want to be there to help them, too.
We’re also looking at national efforts to increase awareness and access as an active partner to celebrate National Fishing and Hunting Day this year, Sept. 23.
The initiative that I think is most near and present is, we need everybody working on these R3 efforts — recruitment, retention and reactivation. There’s lot we can learn from industry about that. One thing we’ve already learned is we need to treat our license systems as a customer relationship and not as a government relationship. We want to make it easy for people to buy a license.
Q: Is there anything you’d like to add?
A: The one thing I would leave you with is I’m president of the Association of Fish and Wildlife Agencies, AFWA, we actually have done programs and grants to help bring state fish and wildlife agencies together with industry. We have industry agency summits each year. What I do when speaking to people in the industry, at the very least I would challenge them to know the leadership of their state fish and wildlife agency. I can tell you this — the leadership of their state fish and wildlife agency wants to have a relationship with them. So I would say to them, don’t be shy to reach out and say hello, and say I just want to make sure we’re connected and that we can work with each other when necessary.
This article originally appeared in the September 2017 issue.