If there’s one thing that unites all countries and companies of the fishing tackle industry, it’s that we are used to facing pressure from external sources. Whether that be political pressure, environmental pressure or economic pressure – we’ve grown to become a pretty hardy bunch.
But we need to be. We need robust figures and stats to back up the importance of our industry so we can defend it, as too often it is overlooked as to just how important it is to a country’s economy and social strength. So it was with a degree of reassurance that I saw the latest figures coming out of the United States regarding its recreational fishing industry.
In an update to the 2016 American Sportfishing Association-backed ‘Sportfishing in America – an Economic Force for Conservation’ report, the figures looked very healthy indeed. There are roughly 49 million anglers in the USA and growing. They spend about $49.8 billion on fishing tackle and have a wider value to the US economy of $125 billion. More than 800,000 are employed by the industry. And perhaps my favourite stat, if sport fishing were a company it would be ranked 51 in the Fortune 500 – now that is enough to make anyone sit up and take notice of what we have to say and how important we are.
It was music to my ears. The reasons, or at least what I believe are the reasons, for this booming market we’ll come onto later. First I want to draw a comparison with my native United Kingdom.
The results of a similar report were recently revealed by the UK’s Environment Agency, which is in charge of a lot of our waterways and also rod licence sales. They estimate that freshwater recreational angling is worth almost $2 billion to the UK economy. There are 27,000 people employed full time by the industry and 22.5 million days are spent fishing per year. All seems fairly healthy, right? Well, actually, wrong. Very wrong.
Naturally the value of UK fishing will be smaller than the US, the populations are vastly different and so are the economies. But take a closer look and you’ll see my homeland is struggling. That 27,000 jobs works out as 0.04 per cent of the UK population. The 800,000 jobs in the USA works out at 0.24 per cent – almost 500 per cent more. Those 22.5 million days spent fishing per year? That’s down a shocking 22 per cent compared with the last survey of this kind in 2005. Rod licence sales in the UK are also down almost 40 per cent, depending which source you read. The US, meanwhile is reporting an eight percent increase in angler numbers.
To my eyes, these numbers from the UK are major red flags and they really got me thinking (and debating with fellow industry folk) – why. Why is this happening? And how can it be such a different story to the USA? What is America doing that is working so well?
One of the reasons—which anyone who knows me will have heard me banging about countless times before— is access. The USA has much more public land where people are free to fish. In the UK, nearly all freshwater you can fish is privately owned, more heavily pressured by anglers and more exclusive. But it goes deeper than that. The industry in the USA has mobilised and acted on potential threats that it saw coming. Its industry associations and even tourism bodies started working on plans to give sportfishing a shot in the arm way before it began facing anything like the declines we see in the UK at the moment.
Examples like the Recreational Boating and Fishing Foundation’s 60 in 60 campaign show perfectly how bodies have inspired not only the public but also the industry to work together for the greater good. I think that is something missing in the UK. Yes, we do have bodies over here that look out for the industry, like the Angling Trust, but they just don’t seem to inspire the same kind of unity that the American organisations do.
In short, I think the US industry is better at teamwork. It is able to put aside differences between companies and realise that fishing is one of humanity’s great past times that needs to be protected. It has been better at showcasing the benefits of fishing, capturing the feeling it gives you, whether that’s through individual companies’ marketing, or through work of associations.
Sure, it’s not perfect – there are always things you can improve and do better – but all American companies should be proud of the industry they are part of. The UK is only one example of a market that could learn a thing or two from how America does business.