Participation in recreational fishing has plateaued since its peak in the late 1980’s. While the number of anglers in the United States has stagnated, the proportion of Americans who regularly fish has steadily declined. It is imperative that an effort be made to increase angling participation and thereby protect our angling traditions and the vital conservation funding that we generate.
Participation in recreational fishing has plateaued since its peak in the late 1980’s. While the number of anglers in the United States has stagnated, the proportion of Americans age 16 and older who regularly fish has steadily declined from 18.7% of the total U.S. population in 1991 to 14.2% in 2016.90 Recent certified license data from the U.S. Fish and Wildlife Service suggest that there were approximately 35.8 million anglers in the United States in 2016.91 While fishing participation has increased since 2006, it has declined overall since 1991, prompting the need for a more targeted effort of recruiting and retaining new anglers.92 Conservation of our fisheries resources is directly related to the number of anglers purchasing fishing licenses and equipment. Angler expenditures generate billions of dollars annually for the national economy and support hundreds of thousands of jobs. 93 The decline in the proportion of Americans who fish poses an ever growing threat to fisheries conservation and many local economies that depend on angler-related trip expenditures.
Through the purchase of fishing licenses, coupled with excise taxes on fishing-related items like rods, reels, lures, electric trolling motors and motorboat fuel, anglers are a critical component of the American System of Conservation Funding (ASCF). Through the ASCF, anglers have contributed $30.5 billion to sport fish restoration programs since 1952. Most of those funds go back to state fish and wildlife agencies who are the primary managers of our nation’s fish and wildlife resources. Monies generated by anglers and hunters through the ASCF account for nearly 2/3 of all state agency funding, with some state agencies relying entirely on sportsmen and women for their yearly operating budgets. In addition, anglers are responsible for generating $48 billion in retail sales and an estimated $125 billion impact on the nation’s economy,94 resulting in 802,000 jobs nationwide.95
In an effort to preserve the angling tradition in the United States, state fish and wildlife agencies, sport fishing and boating conservation organizations, and the fishing industry have invested in recruitment, retention and reactivation (R3) initiatives. Examples of initiatives include the “Fishing Buddy” program in New Jersey, which allows anglers to purchase licenses at a reduced price for those who have either never bought a fishing license, or have not bought one for several years. The Future Fishermen Foundation’s, “Hooked on Fishing, Not on Drugs” program is in its 21st year of introducing kids to fishing as a gateway to a healthier lifestyle.
However, it has become clear that while many of these programs are effective at introducing someone to angling, there needs to be a coordinated, integrated plan among these various programs to take an angler from an introduction to fishing to becoming a lifetime angler. Wildlife agencies are now working with industry and NGO partners to develop long-term recruitment, retention, and reactivation plans that aim to turn the tide on declining angler numbers.
A 2020 study conducted by Responsive Management, in conjunction with the Recreation Boating and Fishing Foundation determined several key demographics that represent the greatest potential to reverse the decline in angler participation. These results point to several key demographic changes (i.e., aging U.S. population, increased urbanization, increasing minority populations) that warrant specific outreach efforts from future R2 efforts. Additionally, this report points to participants in other outdoor activities like camping, running, hiking, and biking as key target groups for recruitment and reactivation efforts.
Points of Interest
- More than one-third of U.S. residents say they are very interested in fishing, while 93% of Americans approve of legal recreational fishing.7
- It is imperative that an effort be made to protect our angling traditions and the vital conservation funding that they generate.
- Fishing in schools programs, fishing tackle loaner programs, and programs to facilitate recruitment and reactivation are key to maintaining and increasing the number of American anglers.
- Out of the pool of roughly 33 million people who fished annually in 2011, only 4% purchased a fishing license every year. 
- R3 efforts conducted by state fish and wildlife agencies should include in-depth evaluation measures to ensure that such programs are effective, and use the information gathered during these evaluations to tailor future programs to address state or area-specific needs.
Development and use of partnerships and strategic models that integrate various programs must continue to be utilized to reverse stagnating participation in angling. Numerous tools exist that may be able to reverse this trend, including implementation of mentee fishing licenses, social media outreach, and fishing appreciation programs in schools, among many others. However, the key is making sure these programs are strategically integrated to take someone from an introduction to fishing to a lifelong pastime. Additionally, protecting and expanding access to public waters should remain a priority, as lack of access is often one of the biggest inhibitors to angler participation. State legislators are encouraged to work with their state fish and wildlife agencies to ensure that state-level programs are coordinated with national R3 efforts.
For more information regarding this issue, please contact Chris Horton at firstname.lastname@example.org.
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Your opinion counts
Studies conducted at both the state and federal level have found that the number of hunters and trappers have been on a generally declining trend over the past several decades. To increase recruitment, retention, and reactivation (R3) of hunters and trappers, which initiative do you think would have the greatest impact?Vote Here
- Increase the number of states with discounted license tailored to specific groups. (3.27%)
- Increase access to public lands. (26.12%)
- Provide more information for new participants. (2.86%)
- Provide hands on opportunities to improve skills and knowledge. (14.49%)
- Engage youth through hunter and conservation programs in schools. (45.71%)
- I feel we have enough sportsmen and women and do not believe R3 programs are necessary. (7.55%)