Things are looking up for saltwater fishing

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By David Gee

“I only work so I can afford the amount of fishing required to forget about work.” –Will Rogers

Actor, cowboy, humorist and social commentator Will Rogers said that 100 years ago, but I think he would be pretty happy with the state of fishing today.  

For the 10th year in a row, the Outdoor Foundation and Recreational Boating & Fishing Foundation teamed up to produce the Special Report on Fishing. They found 50.1 million people participating, the highest number in 12 years. Participation among first-timers and youth is up. Female participation is at an all-time high, as is minority participation.

“The outdoors belongs to all of us – not just those who fit a certain image,” said Stephanie Vatalaro, senior vice president of marketing and communications for RBFF. “Fishing is about enjoying nature, making memories and bonding with the people you love. It’s an experience that everyone should get a chance to have, which is why our work is grounded in the belief that the water is open to everyone.”

And since 70% of boats are used for fishing, and half of all fishing is done from a boat, it’s obvious fishing and boating are intertwined.

By the numbers

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Saltwater fishing is the second most popular type of fishing, engaging 4% of the U.S. population, or 13.2 million people, and it has been on an upward trend. Over the past three years, the participation rate has increased by 2% and total participants by 3%.

Saltwater fishing participants went on 172.3 million outings. This equates to an annual average of 13.1 days, or three fewer days than freshwater participants.

So why do Americans fish? For basically the same reason Will Rogers did in the early 1920’s and ‘30’s; to escape the typical demands of life.

People also love feeling close to nature and, of course, there are plenty of people who also enjoy actually catching fish.

In 2019, 4% of the population, or 13.2 million people, fished along America’s coastlines and in its oceans. The number of people who do that has experienced healthy growth; an average of 3% since 2017.

Saltwater fishing is the most diverse type of fishing out of the categories.

The most promising participation increases, however, were among young adult participants, ages 18 to 24.

As far as geographic locations go, not surprisingly, saltwater fishing participation is highest in the South Atlantic region, which includes states bordering parts of the Atlantic Ocean and Gulf of Mexico.

About 9% of saltwater participants, or 1.2 million people, were new to the category in 2019.

At 44%, a higher percentage of saltwater participants describe themselves as “avid” anglers than the overall fishing population (at 35.2%).

Further, 49% of those surveyed say they were satisfied with the amount of fishing they did in 2019, which is higher than the overall fishing population (at 45%).

Economic contribution

Now, let’s talk dollars. The contribution from saltwater fishing to the United States’ Gross Domestic Product (GDP) is $18.3 billion. That’s more than double the revenue of all Major League Baseball teams combined to use but one example.

People also spend more than twice as much on saltwater fishing than they spend on services for their pets such as grooming, boarding, walking and training.

A typical trip

A majority of participants, 79%, went fishing with two to five companions. While male participants were more likely to fish alone, female and Hispanic participants tend to fish with larger groups. Almost an equal number of adult anglers share trips with other adults or with a mix of adults and children. A small percentage embarked on outings with children and no other adults.

Over 80% of participants were successful in catching at least one fish on their most recent trip. What they did with the catch varied. A slightly higher percentage of participants released what they caught rather than keeping it to eat or doing a combination of keeping and releasing their catch.

During most of these trips, fishing is considering the main event, instead of a side activity. When participants did add on a complementary activity, 84% of them camped. Hiking and boating came in a distant second, both at 47%.

Fishing trips were fairly spontaneous, with 48% being unplanned and 82% being planned within a week of the trip. Over 50% of adult females said that their last fishing trip was unplanned, making them the most spontaneous out of the populations measured. Prior to the trip, the majority of anglers used the internet as a means of finding information on fishing destinations, fish species, equipment and more.

Modern Fish Act

No story on fishing, especially saltwater fishing, would be complete without a reference to the Modern Fish Act, which was signed into law by President Trump on December 31, 2018.

The legislation legally recognizes differences between recreational and commercial fishing and adds more appropriate management tools for policymakers to use in managing federal recreational fisheries.

“Millions of American families take part in saltwater recreational fishing and boating activities and support multi-billion dollar industries that generate hundreds of thousands of jobs in our country,” said Jeff Angers, president of the Center for Sportfishing Policy, at the time the bill was signed into law. “We are thankful for this important milestone for federal fisheries management and marine conservation, and we look forward to continuing to improve public access to our nation’s healthy fisheries.”

Obviously the hard work doesn’t end when a bill is passed. In fact, in many respects that’s when the real work actually begins in earnest. One of the principal components of the measure is improving recreational fisheries management data collection.

New methods for measuring and assessing recreational catches exist, and with the bill now law, the nation’s eight regional fishery management councils have the statutory authority to use them.

There is another historically important piece of legislation that is actually up for renewal on Capitol Hill.

Funding for the Sport Fish Restoration and Boating Trust Fund provides around $650 million each year for state wildlife agencies to pay for fisheries management, restoration projects and boating infrastructure, among other projects. Federal excise taxes on tackle and equipment, motorboat fuel, imported boats and fishing equipment, and small engines are pooled together to create the fund.

It appears as if federal lawmakers are working toward the renewal of the fund, which traces its roots to the Dingell-Johnson Act in 1950. The American Sportfishing Association stated the trust fund, in combination with state fishing license fees and private donations, has raised more than $38 billion for conservation projects since 1951.

A version of the new trust fund legislation was introduced in the Senate in July, and would extend the fishing conservation and habitat restoration mandate through 2024.

Members of the House of Representatives, meanwhile, introduced H.R. 2, known as the “Moving Forward Act.” Included within that bill package is reauthorization of the Sport Fish Restoration and Boating Trust Fund, while also making administrative adjustments to improve the fund’s efficiency. The House measure passed and has been sent to the Senate.

The American Sportfishing Association calls the Sport Fish Restoration Program “one of the nation’s most important conservation programs.”

And since we’re talking about lawmakers, and we began with a quote from Will Rogers, how about we end with one from him sharing a bit of advice for politicians? “If all politicians fished instead of spoke publicly, we would be at peace with the world.”

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