By Steve Midway
Welcome to another Fisheries Blog Q-n-A! This segment is designed to showcase the knowledge and specialty of someone in the fisheries world who flat out knows their stuff. For this Q-n-A, we are featuring Rob Southwick, the president of Southwick Associates, a fish and wildlife consulting company that helps resource managers better understand resource use and the underlying economics. Rob recently finished a major report on recreational fishing trends in the US. I recently asked Rob what’s going on with recreational fishing…
1. You recently put together a report on Sportfishing in America. What was the most surprising finding?
The most surprising is how fishing participation mirrors the economy: as unemployment rates go up, so does the number of people who fish. Its not that they fish for food, or that unemployed people have more time to fish, but instead is largely related to people wanting to get back to the basics when times are uncertain. Think “stay-cations” and those similar terms that were bantered around when the economy was at its worst in 2009 and 2010. In such times, people go back to the things they used to do, near home. To some degree the increase in fishing and its economic impact was related to people having more time on their hands, and not working as much, but that seems to be a secondary reason.
2. We hear a lot in the news about declines in fishing license sales in certain states. Is that a good representation of overall, nationwide trends over the last few years.
No, its not. The drop was greater in coastal areas where the double-whammy of higher fuel prices and decreased boat sales drove down coastal fishing, but as explained above, the soft economy in many areas gave us a bump in fishing. In areas with less economic shift, there’s been less changes in participation. As the economy recovers, we’ll see if fishing activity remains high. In the longer run – since the late 1980’s – fishing had been down. The baby boomer generation were into fishing, but the generations since have been less enthusiastic. Programs such as the Recreational Boating and Fishing Foundation are working to keep people engaged in fishing and encourage younger people to give it a try.
Some regions saw greater drops in fishing since the 1980s. More urbanized areas such as the Northeast and the West coast have seen greater drops than areas where fishing is a greater part of the culture such as the upper Mid-West.
3. Obviously many people count on the economic activity and benefits that come with recreational fishing, but do you have a sense of how much of license sales go back to resource agencies for fisheries research purposes?
100% goes back to state fisheries agencies for access, law enforcement, research and fisheries restoration. It’s a federal law. Anglers pay an excise tax on fishing tackle that has generated billions for fisheries management. Its why the U.S. has the best fishing in the world. Give anglers a cheer – we’re the biggest source of conservation dollars anywhere. If states divert their fishing license dollars to anything other than fisheries management, they will lose their share of the federal excise tax, which is substantial. Since the 1950’s when this program began, there has never been a successful diversion of fishing license dollars to non-fisheries spending. Every attempt by a state legislature or governor to do so has resulted in them restoring the funds back to their fisheries programs. Gotta love that!
4. License sales, angler days, and other overall descriptors are important for characterizing trends in fishing, but can you report on any demographic trends? For example, are fishing efforts driven by an aging demographic, or is there clear evidence of recruiting younger people to fishing?
Fishing is gradually becoming an older activity. The average age for an angler is about 47 years. It was about 42 years old approximately a decade ago, as I recall. We are not replacing our older anglers with equal numbers of younger anglers. People have so many more recreational choices now than we did 30 years ago, and it’s not just video games. Other outdoor activities are our greatest competition, such as mountain biking, trail sports, etc. We see some signs of more younger people taking up fishing, and efforts are underway to help more join the fun.
5. Because fishing licenses are regulated it would seem that license sale data are reliable. However, there are obvious problems with angler surveys and data associated with reporting angler catch, size, effort, etc. What goes into collecting reliable data from anglers?
Reliable data is a function of funding. Quality surveys depend on a completely random sample of anglers, meaning every angler has an equal chance of being selected for the survey. Links on websites, etc don’t provide quality data. So, we have to be careful in spending limited dollars and ensure all surveys we invest in either use methods to reach all anglers (mail, for example, using state license lists), or that online surveys are backed up with reliable research showing where the biases lie and where adjustments are required. Simply posting a survey on a website using survey monkey-like services results in information that might mis-steer the reader into bad decisions. So, even when using state license lists for surveys, you have to be careful and smart regarding how its done.
When license lists do not exist, which is the case for saltwater anglers in many states, very expensive ‘intercept’ surveys are needed to place people at ramps and marinas to count fish and ask questions. There are problems, as many anglers start and end their fishing trips from private docks or other places not monitored. If these anglers behavior and catches are different from the surveyed locations, we end up mis-counting fish caught and days, which can result in bad fisheries management decisions. Our federal NOAA Fisheries and coastal states are looking at ways to improve this issues, and it is still work in progress. Adequate methods exist, but they require significant funding which simply does not exist.