Last updated on September 7th, 2021
The Economics of Recreational Fishing in America
Americans love the great outdoors, and this enthusiasm for hunting and fishing as well as other outdoor recreation has an economic value. Though this post also references other outdoor activities, the focus is on the recreational fishing industry.
Recreational fishing, or sportfishing, is a major contributor to the U.S. economy. But just exactly how big is the recreational fishing industry? I don’t think most of us give the subject much thought, but it is huge.
Well, according to an updated report titled Economic Contributions of Recreational Fishing: U.S. Congressional Districts put out in February 2017 by the American Sportfishing Association in conjunction with Southwick Associates, a market research firm that specializes in outdoor recreation, the financial impact that recreational fishing has on our country’s bottom line significant, with ripples that are felt far and wide across the U.S. economy.
The study shows that recreational fishing adds more than $115 billion annually and some 800,000-plus jobs to the U.S. economy. Let’s put that number in perspective for a minute.
That figure is roughly the same as the 2017 combined projected GDP (Gross National Product) for Costa Rica, Mozambique, Cambodia and Iceland (source: International Monetary Fund World Economic Outlook, Oct. 2016). Big digits!
The report points to the sustained growth of sportfishing as a major contributor to the economic prosperity of the nation. The 46 million-plus U.S. anglers (the number of anglers has grown by 11% since 2006), who spent more than $48 billion in retail purchases (trip-related, fishing tackle and equipment expenditures), were major catalysts for the broader U.S. economy.
The ripple effects of this spending by recreational anglers have had a positive influence on the general economy. But Let’s just look at the recreational fishing industry, for a second, for an example of the benefits of all that consumer spending.
Retailers spent more on inventory, wholesalers, distributors, and manufacturers bought more goods and materials, and the employees who work in the various recreational fishing-related jobs – think the guy or gal who sold you that new bass lure or the bucket of mullet at your local bait and tackle shop – spent their hard-earned wages on the same goods and services that we all buy.
Impact on Jobs, Incomes and Total Economic Output
The study, which builds upon the U.S. Fish & Wildlife Service’s 2011 National Survey of Fishing, Hunting, and Wildlife-Associated Recreation report and the 2013 American Sportfishing Association Sportfishing in America: An Economic Force for Conservation study, analyzes recreational fishing economic impact across all 50 U.S. states.
But it also gets even more granular by looking at the contribution of each state to the general economy by congressional districts, encompassing a total of 435 U.S. congressional districts. Mapping and population software were used to target small geographic regions to analyze the economic contribution and impact of recreational fishing.
The state by state statistics highlight the benefits that recreational fishing has on the local, state and national economies.
The following list ranks the top 10 states (in order) in terms of retail spending/sales as well as the contributions to job creation, salaries and wages, and total economic output, or ripple effect, throughout the broader economy as a result of the original retail sale.
We also can add to this the $15 billion dollars in local, state and federal tax revenues generated by recreational fishing. While these numbers may not surprise some industry professionals, they are eye-opening, to say the least.
Freshwater vs Saltwater Spending
So, who spends more on fishing, recreational freshwater or saltwater anglers? Well, that’s not really a fair question since there are over 27.5 million freshwater fishermen to 8.9 million for saltwater. (source: 2011 & 2016 National Survey of Fishing, Hunting, and Wildlife-Associated Recreation report).
The breakdown in dollars spent on fishing trips and equipment expenditures, however, was $25.7 billion for freshwater and $10.3 billion for saltwater. The average fishing-related spending for all anglers, both freshwater and saltwater was $1262.
The ASA 2013 report is even more bullish, pegging total recreational fishing-related expenditures for freshwater anglers (including the Great Lakes) at $33,573,142,087 and $13,416,585,025 for saltwater, for a total of roughly $47 – $48 billion. On a percentage basis, that breaks down to roughly 71% freshwater and 29% saltwater in total retail spending.
A quick look at the chart above will tell you that although saltwater fishing in the U.S. is certainly popular, almost three-quarters of the angling revenues come from freshwater fishing.
That is not surprising at all as the vast majority of Americans do not live in proximity to ocean water. You fish what is available and, for most of us, that is inland ponds, lakes, rivers, and streams.
In case you were wondering, what species garnered the most attention from recreational fishermen in terms of time and money?
If you guessed bass on the freshwater side, namely largemouth bass, you are right. Panfish came in second with trout third. Saltwater anglers favored redfish (red drum) followed by striped bass and flatfish (flounder, halibut, and soles).
Beyond Recreational Fishing Industry Statistics
Many related industries are positively affected by the growth of recreational fishing and the increased spending that comes with it. Below are just some with which we are familiar:
- Fishing Gear Manufacturers/Retailers: Anglers spent about $6 billion on fishing equipment, according to the ASA survey. They are buying more advanced gear with a focus on design, functionality, and reliability. As more people engage in recreational fishing, equipment, and tackle manufacturers and retailers stand to benefit as demand for gear such as rods and reels, artificial and natural baits, hooks, lines, and electronics such as depth/fish finders continues to grow.
- Foodservice and Lodging: Again, as more people go on fishing trips, there will be a need for food providers and local lodging. Restaurants, fast-food establishments, convenience, and grocery stores stand to profit. Hotels, fishing lodges, and resorts and campgrounds will see upticks in occupancy. Fishing tourism is also projected to increase as more anglers travel for fishing, bringing in revenues to local economies.
- Special Equipment/Auxiliary Equipment: Sportfishing boat, pickup truck, kayak, camping and outdoor/fishing apparel makers and retailers are also big winners as anglers purchase more equipment that helps support their activity.
- Private Land Operators, fishing charters, and Guides: Individuals and enterprises organize what is called “Pay to fish” services. This offers, for a fee, interested anglers the chance to gain access to lakes, ponds and other bodies of water where they can go fishing via private land use. There is also the profitable industry of fishing charters and fishing guides for hire that take anglers out for a half or full day of fishing for a fee. Many of us who love fishing for sport have used one or more of these services.
- Supportive & Miscellaneous Services/Fees: All states require that we buy a recreational fishing license, permit or tag before we can cast a line in the water, resulting in hundreds of millions of dollars in fees and revenues. Many even require you to purchase separate licenses for freshwater and saltwater fishing. Land purchase and leases for the purpose of fishing also generate significant revenues, estimated at over $3 billion in 2011. Sportfishing magazines and books are also big beneficiaries of our passion for fishing, as you might have guessed, catering to millions of subscribers and readers annually.
For most of us, sport fishing is just about spending a good time with family, friends or fellow anglers. It also provides a chance to bond with nature and to kick back and relax for many of us. But we also must understand how recreational fishing connects and contributes to the greater economy to get a more complete picture of the sport’s value.
Recreational fishing is a multi-billion dollar industry that involves over a quarter-million jobs, permanent and seasonal, and generates billions of dollars in wages and salaries, as well as local, state and federal tax revenues.
Yes, it is a sport first and foremost to most of us – but it is also big business in our great U.S. of A and a significant driver of our local, state and national economies.
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