CLEARWATER BEACH Fla.— The 2017 American Sportfishing Association (ASA) Sportfishing Summit is underway on the Gulf Coast. In Clearwater Beach, where just weeks ago about 60-percent of people were without power in the wake of Hurricane Irma, business is returning to something resembling normal.
Restaurants are open. Transportation systems are functional. And hotels are brimming with guests. Staff at the Opal Sands Resort, where this year’s conference is being held, report 90 to 100 percent occupancy since Irma’s passing. Yet, on the water—still cloudy from the passing of Hurricane Nate earlier this week—the sheared, metal wreckage of channel markers hints at the ferocity of Irma’s winds less than a month ago.
“Nobody’s been out in eight days,” reported Tampa-based Captain T.J. Shea on Monday. Shea’s 2 Shea Charters operates a small fleet of guided fishing and diving charters from the area. Prior to the summit, he took FTR on his first foray out in more than week. “That broken piece of metal sticking out of the water?” he continues. “That used to be a tripod.”
It’s in this scene that the brain trust of American sportfishing has gathered. Clearwater Beach is not the portrait of utter devastation painted elsewhere in Florida, or on the Texas and Louisiana coasts, or in Puerto Rico. Things here seem mostly normal. But Clearwater is close enough to that apocalyptic destruction to remind attendees that all is not well in the world of anglers.
A day after Shea’s tour, the ASA Board of Directors gathered for the first of two meetings this week. There, they appointed ASA Vice President of Industry Relations Glenn Hughes the heir to retiring ASA President Mike Nussman. Hughes will take office in April, 2018; and while a cavalcade of speakers and guests delivered positive news about the industry, some served up a sobering reminder that as Hughes takes the helm, he’ll face significant challenges if he wants to guide sportfishing through the winds of change.
Here are a few of those challenges:
Retention, Recruitment, Reactivation (R3)— Combined, the words form the nexus of the ASA’s R3 mantra, which works in conjunction with the Recreational Boating and Fishing Foundation’s (RBFF) 60 in 60 campaign. Launched in September of 2016, 60 in 60 aims to raise the number of active U.S. anglers from 46 million to 60 million in 60 months. When Hughes takes over, he’ll have 41 months to help the fishing industry hit the mark.
Government organizations like the U.S. Forest Service and Bureau of Land Management are theoretically working with groups like the RBFF and the ASA-operated Keep America Fishing (KAF) to increase angler access and opportunities, while the Boy Scouts of America have helped teach 36,000 scouts about fishing so far. Meanwhile, organizations like FLW and B.A.S.S. are reporting record numbers of high school age anglers; and board members are optimistic that NOAA will soon tag along for the ride.
Those are all good things, but they still don’t solve the conundrum of fishing’s aging base of license holders. (And in turn, to a great extent, its funding.)
If fishing wants to thrive, it will have to teach young kids how to fish, recruit millennials from the overflowing ranks of outdoor enthusiasts who don’t fish, and encourage older anglers to continue mentoring future generations. Each one of those tasks requires a different solution.
Retailer Participation— Hughes will have to raise retailer awareness and participation within ASA. ICAST Trade Show Director Blake Swango reported record numbers from the ASA’s 2017 trade show. The show had 15,133 attendees. Swango said of that number, about 3,000 were retailers representing just over 1,200 individual buyers. And while retailer participation is still at its highest level ever—ICAST attendance grew dramatically from about 7,000 in 2009— the number was essentially flat from the previous year.
However, retailer involvement isn’t just essential for the success of ICAST, it’s essential for the future of fishing. Here’s the deal, you guys: you’ve got to be plugged in to what the ASA is doing. You’ve got to teach employees how to recruit new anglers and how to retain existing ones. Pro-tip for a quick fix: point them to TakeMeFishing.org or VamosaPescar.org.
I know, the message can be muddled—there are RBFF’s and KAF’s and KFF’s and more acronyms than you can set an Alabama rig with, but the best digital assets, like photos, videos and tutorials, are available in those places right now. You can post some of them to Facebook today.
ASA Member Involvement with the Sportfishing PAC— The ASA has a strong, influential membership base that’s just now learning how to flex its muscles in Washington through the Sportfishing PAC.
Don’t take this for granted.
Earlier this year, at Outdoor Retailer, the hiking and camping community lamented the fact that they don’t have the same type of organizational continuity. The result of that frustration was a public march on the Utah state capitol building. While protests can be powerful, fishing has figured out a way to turn complaints into actual legislation, and the Sportfishing PAC is doing so with a surprisingly small bankroll. Here’s what they’ve done so far this year, with a $68,000 budget.
- Extended the (originally) three-day federal Gulf red snapper season
- Helped stop the USFWS and EPA ban on lead tackle
- Ensured that Pacific bluefin tuna are not listed on the endangered species list
- Helped reform the Billfish Conservation Act
- Helped introduce the Modern Fish Act
These are all bi-partisan issues that help more people enjoy fishing. And listen, I get it. PACs are seedy. There’s no way around it: you’re donating ‘personal’ money to a political cause. Many PACs are in reality sponsored by corporations with resources on an unimaginable level. The entire concept is flawed more than college basketball, but if you’re going to play the game in Washington—legally—this is how you do it.
Sportfishing PAC officials say they’re bi-partisan. They say they don’t care if you’re red or blue as long as you support fishing. Right now, they’re average donation to a campaign is around $1,000.
Ultimately, the PAC is leather-toieng around D.C. hobnobbing with politicians. Members say those contributions often gain them one-on-one, or at least very close to one-on-one, access to legislators. That’s time they use to talk issues and, hopefully, establish relationships with the people who make laws. “Right now, we’re known as the fishing guys,” said ASA Board Chairman Kirk Immens. “That’s good, because three years ago they didn’t know who we were at all.”
This is how to play the game, and so far Team ASA is getting results. But, they’ve only got a handful of high level contributors. If you’re interested in giving them better equipment, here’s how to get more info.
As the week goes on, more issues will unravel like a poorly packed burrito. But for now, from Clearwater, Glenn Hughes is the man of the hour. In a few months, he’ll be the man at the helm during one of fishing’s most pivotal turning points in a generation.
The countdown starts at 41.
Editor’s note: A previous version of this story listed the total number of ICAST buyers at 580. ICAST Trade Show Director Blake Swango later clarified that the more accurate number is just over 1,200.