The Economics of Recreational Fishing

If sport fishing were a single industry, it would be top tier in the Fortune 500.

In the not-too-distant past, a derogatory put-down of the sport-fishing industry was: “That is just a bunch of guys who play with their food.”

Well, that commentary was wrong then and even more so today. Now, thanks to a new fishing-statistics report produced by the American Sportfishing Association and released in January, there are some real numbers to prove what many of us knew all along: The sport-fishing industry is an economic powerhouse that supports the long-term sustainability of our valuable aquatic resources, and provides a healthy pastime to 46 million adults and children.

ASA’s report, “Sportfishing in America, an Economic Force for Conservation” looks at the sport-fishing industry as a whole, which generates a very impressive $48 billion in sales, creates a $115 billion impact on the nation’s economy, and supports more than 828,000 jobs. This report was produced by Southwick Associates for ASA, and it sourced its data from the Department of the Interior and Commerce, Fortune magazine, the National Sporting Goods Association and ESPN.


While the current participation rate is skewed toward freshwater fishing — as only about one in four anglers fish in salt water — the demographic trend of ­populations moving toward the coastline should mean more saltwater anglers in the future. From an overall perspective, growth of the sport has been robust since 2006, with a growth of 11 percent in the five years between national surveys. Of the ­top-10-ranked states for angler expenditures, six are coastal states. Florida, with a very long coastline, comes in No. 1 in just about every category.

Also, fishing-tackle sales grew above 16 percent in the past five years, when growth in a lot of industries was flat or negative. More U.S. citizens enjoyed all kinds of sport fishing than participated in tennis and golf combined.

Saltwater sport fishing makes up a substantial portion of the overall numbers. About 9 million saltwater anglers fished a total of almost 100 million days. This generated about $13.5 ­billion in retail sales, more than $32 billion in economic activity, roughly $10 billion in wages, and almost 250,000 jobs. While we are not a big fan of taxes, when they are used to enhance the activity that pays them, they are beneficial. Marine anglers generated $2.3 billion in federal tax revenue and almost another $2 billion to the states. Wow! If the sport-fishing industry were a single business, it would be ranked 51st on the Fortune 500 list. If that is the benefit of “a bunch of guys playing with their food,” bring it on.


The economic activity generated by sport fishing benefits more than just the manufacturers of tackle, marine electronics, boats and motors. It supports many rural communities along our coasts, rivers and lakes, with their multigenerational rural lifestyles. Fishing is part of their heritage. More than most, they understand the need to maintain healthy ecosystems and sustainable resources. Those two things have formed their history and will maintain their future.

Sport-fishing participants love to catch fish both for fun and for a healthy source of protein. They also understand the need to protect and enhance the environments that support fish. Anglers and hunters have been some of the most conservation-minded resource users throughout recorded history. They understand that “no fish” means “no fishing.”

Anglers contribute to the funding of our nation’s fisheries conservation and environmental improvement in a number of ways. This past year, 2012, marked the 75th anniversary of a conservation funding system that is envied throughout the world. In 2010, the Sport Fish Restoration and Boating Trust Fund generated $390 million from the excise tax on fishing tackle and from the transfer of boat fuel tax dollars back to the Trust Fund. This money is apportioned back to states by a formula based on fishing activity. License sales in 2010 also generated $657 million used by states to operate their fish and wildlife agencies. Beyond all of that, anglers donate more than $400 million annually to a variety of conservation and fishing organizations. That is an impressive tally, and one of the reasons the U.S. has maintained generally robust fish populations and quality habitat.


Fishermen and hunters understand that in order to have healthy resources, you have to have healthy ecosystems. When the latter goes away, you do not have the former, and they are willing to pay to enhance both. Without them, we would not be in the robust shape we are today. So the next time someone says, “Anglers just play with their food,” we can say: “OK, but we pay to play. What have you done lately to support our resources?”


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