More fish = more anglers = more profit: Part 2

Last time, I discussed the lack of acknowledgement to the economic impact of sea angling by decision makers managing marine fish stocks in the UK. In this blog, I want to explore the linkage between fish availability and level of angling.

In the USA, there is an organisation that represents the trade interests for angling. It is called the American Sportfishing Association (ASA).

Their catch phrase is: More fish = more anglers = more profit.

The ASA lobbies decision makers hard wherever fishing opportunities are being determined because experience has taught them that abundant fish represented by as natural age structure as possible and, which includes a decent proportion of ‘trophy’ sized individuals, is good for business.

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Over in the states, they get it. A better availability of good-sized fish means more anglers, and more spending.

Existing anglers make more trips when catches improve and new entrants are attracted to the sport. More importantly, newcomers are retained as long-term anglers if they enjoy some success.

Now I’m no scientist but I have been involved in UK sea angling for the last 60 years. During that time, I’ve been a retailer of angling equipment and also one of the larger suppliers of frozen baits across the UK. I have also fished in Ireland regularly for more than 40 years and the east coast of the USA during the last 20 years. I have reached a number of conclusions that whilst they cannot be labelled scientific are based on first hand observations.

My first experience that alerted me to the linkage between fish and the level of angling activity was when as a 7-year old I caught my first couple of bass on a trout rod on a fine summer evening whilst my family enjoyed a beach BBQ at a local cove near Porthleven. I can recall pleading with my father to take me back the following night where I presumed I would be able to repeat the performance. It didn’t happen! I can’t recall why, but I remember the feeling of desolation as I thought about those bass being in the same place and I wasn’t there to tempt them with my hook baited with rag!

The message was clear. If fish were available to catch, new anglers joined the sport and existing anglers would upgrade their gear.

Later in life, a decent catch of bass, wrasse or pollack would always result in an effort to return to the same location in the hope of repeating the experience.

Run the clock forward 20 years to when I ran a retail sports equipment shop in St Ives with, if I say so myself, a fairly decent salt water tackle section. As a busy tourist town, the business provided around 20 rental fishing kits comprising a cheap intrepid beachcaster rod, reel and a few simple bits of terminal gear plus instructions. The shop enjoyed a panoramic view from an elevated position down across the harbour. During the late summer on spring tides mackerel could frequently be caught in good numbers off the quay and in anticipation I’d keep an eye on the quay as the tide headed towards high water. I learnt that if the mackerel arrived, within half an hour I would be dealing with a queue of wannabe anglers – normally fathers and sons –  all looking to rent a rod.  It was good business and if successful, a proportion would upon returning the rental tackle ask about purchasing their own gear. The message was clear. If fish were available to catch, new anglers joined the sport and existing anglers would upgrade their gear.

I learnt that if the mackerel arrived, within half an hour I would be dealing with a queue of wannabe anglers – normally fathers and sons –  all looking to rent a rod. 

During my 30 years in the frozen bait trade I also witnessed the very clear and obvious correlation between fish availability and bait sales. Monday was our ‘busy’ (some would say chaotic) day in order to assemble orders from tackle shops the length and breadth of the country so as to get trucks loaded and away in early hours of Tuesday. If tackle shops along the south east at Brighton, Eastbourne, Hastings, Rye, New Romsey, Folkestone, Dover, Deal, Ramsgate, Margate & Herne Bay all ordered multiple cases of squid it was obvious that the cod fishing in the south east was hot. If Littlehampton tackle shops ordered 20 cases of mackerel each it was obvious the spurdogs were biting. And if tackle shops along both sides of the Bristol Channel were all ordering squid it was a certainty that places like Clevedon, Watchet, Minehead, Porthcawl, Barry and Cardiff were producing decent catches of cod.

I’ve been fishing the west coast of Ireland since 1975 – every year at least one trip, sometimes three trips. During that 42 years I have pointed hundreds of anglers towards County Kerry as a destination for potentially good fishing. Most found some fish and have become regular visitors. Some didn’t find fish and consequently didn’t return. County Kerry, like anywhere, else does not provide guaranteed sport. A little luck plus fishable weather conditions are crucial.

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In the late nineties, I was lucky enough to enjoy some superb fishing for big striped bass on the east coast of the USA. My success resulted in many more Brits making the journey over the coming years.

In 1998, I was invited to the east coast of the USA by a fisheries scientist to sample the recovered striped bass fishery. My experience resulted in half a dozen additional Brits going across in 1999. And so on. Now, I believe the annual pilgrimage is undertaken by at least two dozen Brits who I know plus numerous others I don’t know but who have heard about the quality of the fishing. Not everyone was lucky enough to find exceptional fishing. I know of at least two who through sheer bad luck arrived in abysmal weather and at a period when the fish were not present. They never returned.

If I go fishing in Cornwall on my ‘home patch’ and have a successful trip, I am far more likely to go again the following day to the same mark in the hope I will repeat the experience. I may even tip off a few close mates who do the same for me. I went out in my kayak on Wednesday several months ago and landed six bass, four of which were 4 – 6lbs.  I was only out on the water for an hour and a half.  I couldn’t go on the Thursday due to wind, but it flattened off on the Friday and there was no way I was not going to the same mark. I did and only caught two bass, one of which was tiny and the other around 5lbs. As far as I’m concerned, a 5-pounder is a good result.

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If I catch a bass on a certain mark on a given day, I am far more likely to return at the next available opportunity than if I blank!

Across the globe, anglers study ‘fishing reports’ to see where the action is and will make decisions on whether to go, where to go and which lures or baits to take based on those reports. Commercial fishermen are no different. If they deploy gear (pots or nets) and achieve better than average catches they will, quite naturally, return to the same location for another bite of the apple only shifting their gear when catches dwindle or weather conditions dictate it necessary.

A friend of mine has spent many years taking responsibility for encouraging and teaching junior sea anglers to fish. Fishing marks have to be safe as well as accessible and a level of parent attendance is mandatory. If the kids are fortunate enough to catch some fish – small whiting, pollack or flat fish –  they want to go the following weekend. If they catch nothing, they end up staying at home playing electronic games. It really is that black and white.

If I go fishing in Cornwall on my ‘home patch’ and have a successful trip, I am far more likely to go again the following day to the same mark in the hope I will repeat the experience. I may even tip off a few close mates who do the same for me.

Another important aspect that determines economic expenditure is what is known as the level of ‘avidity’. A proportion of sea anglers develop an incredible level of enthusiasm or passion for their sport. Some can justifiably be said to be fanatics! I am frequently labelled such. The signs of fanaticism are: an increased number of trips combined with a deep interest in the latest gear – rods, reels, line and lures amongst other tackle –  and a preparedness to spend considerable sums of money on keeping their tackle collection and apparel up to date. A modern lure angler who enjoys sufficient expendable income will spend £500 on chest waders, £200 on a wading jacket, £200 on wading boots, £600 on a rod (he/she may have three or four), £400 or more on a reel, £100 on the latest braid line plus many hundreds of pounds on lures. A kayak angler may spend similar sums on tackle plus as much as £4000 on a kayak with sonar and GPS chart. Non-anglers don’t appear to understand avidity and related expenditure. However, avidity isn’t confined to angling. A set of golf clubs can be purchased for less than £200 but an experienced and keen player can spend tenfold that, plus some. Even some of the gormless faces around Defra’s meeting table get that! The proportion of sea anglers who develop such avidity is directly related to the quality of their fishing. I’ve witnessed run-of-the-mill anglers who have mid-priced and perfectly usable gear transcend towards fanaticism during periods of far better than average fishing. The high-quality fishing takes over their lives. They think about fishing, dream about fishing, talk about nothing other than the fishing and develop a desire to acquire top-end gear. If and when the quality of the fish reverts to normal, all that extra enthusiasm evaporates.

Back in 2006 when I was on the steering group of Invest in Fish, I attempted to persuade fellow steering group members that the level of RSA participation was linked to the abundance and size of available fish. In an attempt to support my view, I contacted an Eric Thunberg, who is based at Woodshole Fisheries Centre, Massachusetts, and arranged to meet with him whilst I was fishing in Cape Cod. Eric worked in the department of Humanities and Social Sciences. The linkage between participation rates and economic impacts is very real but also more complicated than I initially thought. New angling participants are initially attracted to “have a go” due to many reasons. They might have a relative or friend who takes them fishing. They may witness a scene of anglers catching fish and be stimulated to have a go. Initially they may borrow tackle and spend relatively small sums. If they find the experience rewarding, they may buy their own gear and go more frequently. A number will become avid anglers, and a smaller proportion will spend £40,000 on a boat and substantial sums on chandlery/tackle.

The matrix that portrays participation rates, frequency of trips and level of expenditure is inherently complex but at the end of the day:

More and bigger bass equals a larger RSA bass fishery with resultant economic and employment impacts.

But, Defra do not appear to get it; or perhaps they do but know that to take any proactive measures to meaningfully rebuild bass stocks for RSA would bring the wrath of commercial fishing leaders cascading down on them, which would make dialogue on a wide range of issues between Defra and commercial leaders increasingly acrimonious. And that is something they will want to avoid pretty much at all costs.

The Bottom Line.

Just consider for a moment the carp fishery. Contacts in the tackle trade tell me that carp tackle sales exceed all tackle sales for the remainder of coarse fishing plus all game fishing!  Ask yourself how the carp fishery could have developed without abundant available waters stocked with equally abundant carp?

malcolm-gilbertMalcolm Gilbert | January 2018

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