Conservation Times column
By Bruce Shupp, National Conservation Director
Recently released figures from the 2001 National Survey of Fishing, Hunting and Wildlife Associated Recreation, conducted and published by the U.S. Fish and Wildlife Service, indicate that the number of recreational anglers in the United States has continued to decline slightly. In 1991, 35.6 million anglers, 16 years or older, fished 511 days and spent $31.2 billion. In 2001, 34.1 million anglers fished 557 million days and spent $35.6 billion. However, in 1996, 35.2 million anglers fished 626 million days and spent $42.7 billion. These figures show that angler numbers have been flat, on average, over the decade, but in the middle of the decade anglers fished more often and spent more money.
Speculation about what is going on with U.S. sportfishing has been ongoing among anglers, resource agencies and the sportfishing industry since fishing license sales began declining in 1990. The decade of decline occurred after continued increases in angler numbers from the end of World War II through the 1980s. There are many opinions and theories about why angler numbers have not maintained pace with U.S. population growth. Normally when people express their opinions they define one single, favorite factor as the cause of the decline in angler numbers. Surveys of anglers, ex-anglers and nonanglers have been done to pin down the causes. These studies have shown there is not just one reason for declining interest in angling. There are a multitude of factors over the last decade that have influenced public choices for recreational participation. The major reasons include urbanization, declining free time within the family structure, aging of the U.S. population and competing recreational interests. So, while we know that the last decade has not been sportfishing’s outstanding growth period, even with the phenomenal increase in TV fishing shows and angling publications, what can we anticipate in the future? The American Sportfishing Association (ASA), the organization representing the sportfishing industry, addressed the future of fishing participation at its “Sportfishing Summit” meeting in Tucson, Ariz., October 9-11, 2002. The featured speaker was the eminent fishing and hunting sociologist, Dr. Robert Ditton of Texas A&M University. Dr. Ditton has extensive experience measuring sportsmen use, expenditures and opinions. He works very closely with the Texas Parks and Wildlife Department and was a leader in the development of the National Fishing and Boating Outreach Plan. Dr. Ditton was asked by ASA to go beyond just his usual measurement analysis and make some predictions for future angler participation. He began by characterizing the reality of declining angler numbers. Only 16 percent of the U.S. population 16 years and older were fishing in 2001, down from 17 percent in 1996. The U.S. population has increased 11 percent since 1991, while angler numbers shrank by 4 percent. Angler numbers are declining even as the population grows. New angler recruits have not replaced angling dropouts. But, other sports are experiencing declines too. Baseball, softball and volleyball participation is down, and soccer participation is flat. Based on the current angling participation rates, public behavior and U.S. population expansion, predictions for 2030 are a total of 40.4 million anglers, up 5.2 million anglers, or only 13 percent growth from 1996 to 2030. This is a numbing message for the industry! What can be done to increase participation? Certainly, continuation of the Recreational Boating and Fishing Foundation efforts to increase awareness and coordinate sportfishing community marketing and promotion. But, Dr. Ditton believes (and I share his opinion) that marketing alone will not increase public interest in angling, and that many of our present efforts may be misdirected. Surveys have shown that people fish because someone nurtured and mentored their interest. And, if you agree that this nurturing is important, then attempts to “introduce” people to fishing with one day derbies, rodeos, tournaments, etc., are not going to stimulate many people to acquire an interest in this lifetime sport unless someone, a mentor, continues this “socialization.” Family, neighbors, friends, etc. have socialized most of us avid anglers into our sport. That socialization process usually began at an early age (over 80 percent of today’s anglers began fishing under the age of 12) and it has continued, through differing intensities and stages, throughout our lives. Marketing angling to women and specific ethnic groups requires accurate marketing information. Certainly, not all potential anglers will relate to TV shows showing billfishing trips or bass tournaments. And, while nonanglers may admire and envy the opportunities described, many will not be able to visualize how their present geographic, economic and social situation relates to Alaskan salmon fishing or fly fishing in Argentina. These shows sell products to existing avid anglers, but do they really stimulate nonanglers to run out and buy a license? Dr. Ditton’s advice was to put more emphasis on mentoring new anglers; evaluate existing and future angler education and recruitment efforts to be sure they are working; target marketing to specific interest groups with messages that overcome the constraints that restrict their angling and/or recreation and clearly depict the benefits that will most appeal to the target audience. Relating this to B.A.S.S. members, think about whether the effort your clubs and Federations make to introduce youth to fishing through one day events would be better directed to developing mentoring programs. If a B.A.S.S. club mentors a dozen kids a year by taking them on multiple fishing trips for bass and/or other species, and teaches tackle rigging, etc., this effort may motivate some of those kids to remain an angler. You may argue that this strategy is reaching only a handful of potential anglers! Sure, but if you have a one day event, how many of the 200 kids crowded around a pond will retain interest without continued support? This is certainly something to think about. Given how much we all love angling, wouldn’t it be rewarding to think we changed a nonangler’s life by converting him into a B.A.S.S. master?