ICast Wrap-Up – What to expect from the Fishing Industry

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THUNDER BAY – Sports – Four-hundred twenty-seven exhibitors, 1,270 booths, 2,100 buyers, 530 media and around 7,000 people later, ICAST 2011 is history. It’s “only” about 400,000 square feet, small by Las Vegas exhibition standards, but the International Convention of Allied Sportfishing Trades (ICAST) is a biggie for the fishing industry.

It’s truly the annual show where companies can make – or break- a year. In the best of economic times, having success at ICAST can set the stage for your coming year. Today, a bust at ICAST probably means serious belt-tightening or a quick trip to oblivion for many of companies exhibiting this year. Throughout the event, whispers as to the general health of many companies, from mom-and-pop shops through the oldest names in the fishing business, didn’t sound good.

It’s as much a sign of the times as the removal of construction cranes from the Las Vegas skyline. Construction wasn’t finished; work was simply on hold until better times.

“There is nowhere like ICAST where the global sportfishing industry comes together to see the very latest in gear and accessories and network with colleagues and friends,” says ASA President and CEO Mike Nussman. “In this economy, people know they need to be smart about where and how they do business. I’m gratified that attending ICAST was high on everyone’s list.”

So how is the industry?

It is, as described by Jeff Marble, Frabill CEO and new chairman of the board for the American Sportfishing Association, facing challenges he says are “frankly, bigger than us” because of what he called the “consumer mindset” in today’s economy.

A recovery Marble described “uneven-and protracted” has left businesses to be managed prudently and hopefully positioned to take advantage of future opportunities.

Unlike last year, however, the industry’s not facing a gigantic natural catastrophe like the Gulf Oil Spill, but continued challenges remain in every area, from legislation to regulation and management of America’s sport fisheries.

Management decisions, as ASA’s Nussman pointed out, “must be based on reasonable data, not guesswork”. Standards, Nussman contended, which had been missing from federal marine fisheries management.

“Whether it’s the State of California trying to ban recreational fishing from their coastal waters,” Nussman said, “or the challenges brought by invasive species like Asian carp in the Great Lakes or even the National Park Service closing angler access to surf fishing along North Carolina’s Outer Banks, we know that if our public waters are going to remain open and healthy for recreational fishing, the industry – and the anglers – alike need to tell public officials that recreational fishing must be a federal, state and local priority.”

To that end, the ASA has pushed for expanded participation in the KeepAmericaFishing movement. At last year’s ICAST, the KeepAmericaFishing database had approximately 30,000 names. This year, after a vigorous campaign that will be stepped up even more this year, more than 450,000 salt and freshwater anglers have joined the campaign.

Is it effective? Apparently so. When the Environmental Protection Agency (EPA) announced a proposal to ban lead in fishing tackle, 45,000 emails from anglers caused them to, as Nussman said, “stop and listen.”

That having been said, the industry leaders I spoke with at ICAST weren’t confident there was an economic recovery underway. As they watch prices for raw materials and transportation rise, they’re watching what one executive described as “grocery store margins” get even tighter.

Another retailing challenge appears to be what one company marketing chief called a “price-cutting mindset”. Faced with fewer consumers, some retailers have initiated what might be called either a Pavlovian -or death-wish- response: price cutting.

As it was explained to me “cutting margins to nothing isn’t a survival technique; it’s only prolonging your ultimate failure.”

I don’t know how much of that was hyperbole, but I did notice buyers being extremely cautious when making buying decisions. One of the key items this year concerned unsold inventory. If it didn’t move, buyers wanted the right to return stocks to the manufacturers.

Those conditions won’t create “ghost orders” like those made during the unprecedented run on AR-style rifles last year, but it will make it difficult for manufacturers to determine just how much manufacturing is enough to meet demand. Firearms manufacturers have seen these “bubbles” before; it’s new territory for many in the tackle industry.

This quickly after wrapping up a major trade show it would definitely be premature to declare ICAST either a success or failure. But it is safe to say the fishing industry has a realistic handle on the state of our collective economic affairs.

Describing that, unfortunately, isn’t so difficult: precarious. As Marble said, some issues are simply bigger than an industry.

But we’ll keep you posted.

Jim Shepherd

Article is courtesy of The Fishing Wire.

The Fishing Wire

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