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.
Before the COVID-19 pandemic, participation in recreational fishing had plateaued in the late 1980’s and began declining in 1991 until 2006 when participation rates began to slowly rise again. However, with COVID-19 forcing people to reassess their usual pastimes and looking for safe alternatives, recreational fishing participation spiked to 18% of the total US population in 2020, the highest it has been in over a decade. Furthermore, youth participation grew to 53%, both Hispanic and female participation were at an all-time high of 13% and 36% of total participants respectively, first time participants increased by 1.3 million and reactivated participants increased by 2.2 million when compared to 2019. With increased interest in recreational fishing, it is crucial that legislators, fish and wildlife agencies, industry, and conservation partners work together to find new and engaging ways to retain these new and returning members of the angling community.
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. Declines 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’s 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 $51.2 billion in retail sales and an estimated $129 billion impact on the nation’s economy, resulting in 826,000 jobs nationwide.
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 22nd 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 R3 efforts. Additionally, the 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 angler participation. Numerous tools exist that may be able to reverse this trend, including the 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 a beginner angler to an enjoyer of 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.