Is fishing a worldwide Covid success story?
IT'S never easy to find a silver lining in the middle of a global pandemic that has already caused three and half million deaths, decimated businesses and livelihoods and seen hospitals overwhelmed and civil liberties drastically curtailed. But we anglers are optimists by necessity and this time we really do have something to celebrate. After years of decline we suddenly find ourselves experiencing an unprecedented upsurge in both angler numbers and tackle sales. The sport we all love became popular again as people’s leisure options shrank in the face of coronavirus restrictions and they sought to reconnect with the natural world closer to home. From America to Europe, from Britain to Australia and across much of Asia recreational fishing is now a worldwide Covid success story.
In the USA the first half of 2020 saw a 24 per cent increase in male anglers and the number of new female anglers increased by a staggering 49 per cent with highest growth in the 18-44 age range. Great news for the future.
I’ve read similar stories from Australia and New Zealand with licence and tackle sales up and big increases in boat registrations.
Here in Britain, where angling was one of the few sports given the green light to resume when lockdown restrictions were eased back in May 2020, rod licence sales have increased by nearly 20 per cent across most categories and tackle companies are reporting record sales with manufacturers struggling to keep place with the surge in demand. My contacts in the trade tell me the same is happening right around the world. Like many anglers I’m quite particular in my choice of gear and I’m certainly having to shop around to get the bits and pieces I need. Angling, a sport all too often ignored by the national press, has increasingly become the focus of attention in a country starved of good news. A recent Guardian article highlighted both the health benefits of fishing and its contribution to the economy saying:
"Retailers that specialise in fishing tackle are struggling to keep up with demand as thousands of people have taken up angling as a pandemic pastime and a physically distanced way to enjoy the outdoors."
Figures from Europe tell a similar story. In Holland, where access to fishing is controlled by the national governing body - Sportvisserij Nederland - they issued no fewer than 644,000 permits, an increase of almost 18 per cent compared to 2019. They said:
"Nobody had foreseen this growth, but 2020 was a special year. When the coronavirus pandemic broke out here in March, our country virtually came to a standstill. The sport also suffered greatly from the measures of the first lockdown, but fortunately recreational fishing was still allowed.
Many people made full use of this: fishing turned out to offer many people relief during all coronavirus measures. With the beautiful spring weather as a helping hand, people flocked to the waterfront."
Denmark saw a 24 per cent increase in licence sales covering both salt and fresh water while in Sweden, one of the most popular fishing areas at iFiske saw a truly amazing 80 per cent rise in sales of online fishing permits. The very welcome rise in the numbers of women and younger people going fishing in America has been replicated elsewhere with Holland recording 30 per cent and 46 per cent increases respectively whilst in England and Wales the rod licence data records a 5 per cent increase in sales to women. Almost a third of new licence applicants in the 15-44 age group were from women, with much of the increase thought to be a result of mums seeing fishing as a cheap and accessible way to get their children out and about while so many other sporting activities, such as football and indoor swimming, were locked down.
When We Fish Again
Whilst some of this success can be put down to circumstance there was a lot of hard work underlying these impressive results. Different countries took radically different approaches in trying to contain the spread of the virus. Here in Britain our government was slower than most to react and our infection rates and hospital admissions quickly soared. When our first lockdown was introduced in March 2020 it was particularly strict with citizens only allowed to leave home for essential purposes and limited exercise. Sadly, this did not include fishing although this was still permitted in a number of European countries including Germany, Holland, Norway, Denmark, Czech Republic, Croatia and Ireland. This was a fact we were later to deploy in the successful campaign we mounted at the Angling Trust to ensure when our government considered it safe to begin the gradual process of releasing us from "house arrest" that angling was first in the queue.
With infection rates starting to decline towards the end of April we judged it was time to make the case for the careful resumption of fishing in England. A carefully drafted report entitled "When We Fish Again" was submitted to the Cabinet Office and to the fisheries and sports ministers. It set out the means by which recreational fishing could be permitted and draws on experience in other European countries where angling had been allowed to continue under certain conditions during the pandemic with significant benefits to both wellbeing and the economy and without having a detrimental impact on their efforts to combat COVID-19.
As the economy plunged we reminded our government that the recreational angling sector was estimated to be worth over £4bn to the UK economy and experience from across Europe indicates that this contribution has grown significantly where angling has been permitted under lockdown. Our report recommended a phased resumption in line with the government’s own criteria and identified a number of other reasons why angling should be an early candidate for consideration including:
- being a largely solitary sport where self-isolation occurs naturally
- proven benefits for mental health and physical wellbeing
- appealing to people of all ages and backgrounds and engaging able-bodied and disabled participants alike
- the majority of the population live within 5 miles of a waterway minimising the need for significant travel
- evidence that non-contact outdoor activities will not increase infection rates
- a reduction in pressure on other public open spaces
The full report can be seen here.
The When We Fish Again campaign was a complete success with angling resuming on 13th May 2020 and continuing in some form throughout two further lockdowns in November of that year and in early part of 2021. It also was a game changer for the Angling Trust and a trigger for the welcome return of thousands of people to our sport. I guess the key question for all of us is whether or not the recreational fishing boom will last when the pandemic is over. I’ve feeling it will and this is backed up by survey figures from the Environment Agency here in England which show that some 86 per cent of new fishing licence applicants if they would renew again this year and that 40 per cent had gone fishing more than 10 times since buying their licence. I’m sure this is replicated across the world meaning that this pleasing new global fishing bug could be with us for a while.