Recreational boating is big business. Whether it's trolling for walleye, motoring for fun or paddling for exercise, summer and boating go together like dollars and cents.
With 22,831,569 recreational boats registered in the United States in 2012, boating is clearly a recreational option of choice among many voters in rural and urban areas.
Yet despite a large number of narrow studies, comprehensive data about boating access had been piecemeal before the release last week of a national study by a public opinion research firm. Its findings reveal that fishing continues to be an important part of most boating trips. While the nature of boating is changing, most boaters are generally pleased with existing access, said the survey, but would get on the water more often if access and amenities were improved.
"The overall results suggest that lack of boating access contributes to lower participation among some boaters than they otherwise would have with better access," said the study, conducted under a U.S. Fish and Wildlife Service grant by Responsive Management, a Virginia-based company that specializes in issues regarding natural resources and outdoor recreation.
The study, "Enhancing Fishing Access Through a National Assessment of Recreational Boating Access," included a review of previously published research, focus groups with boaters and boating industry representatives, a nationwide survey of boaters including boating anglers, and a national survey of boating industry representatives and boating agency professionals.
While the needs and practices of pleasure boaters and anglers can sometimes seem at odds, the study found that "participation in boating and fishing are intertwined, with obstacles or barriers to one activity strongly influencing participation in the other."
Fishing is an important component of most boating trips -- 41 percent of respondents said fishing was the top reason for going, and 67 percent said they had fished from a boat in the previous two years.
The study found that most boats are launched an average of 15 miles from the boater's home. While most boaters were generally satisfied with boating access, they were concerned about the quality of access facilities -- 56 percent reported too few boat access areas, poor maintenance of access sites or crowded launch ramps.
Public launching ramps for Pennsylvania's 332,431 registered boats are administered by the Fish and Boat Commission, Department of Conservation and Natural Resources and local authorities. Commercial docks are managed privately.
John Arway, executive director of the Pennsylvania Fish and Boat Commission, said the agency's Boat Fund comprises some $13 million of the agency's $50 million annual budget, but additional spending on areas such as law enforcement also benefits boaters. Most of the boating budget comes from boaters through registration fees and a federal excise tax on boating equipment and fuel.
"Upgrading access points is expensive," said Arway, adding that the Responsive Management survey said most boaters wanted better maintenance of existing launches, not new ones. "We've got an infrastructure in place and can only afford to work with the funding we have."
In recent years Fish and Boat has invested in new water trails and kayak-canoe launch sites, but Arway noted that boat registration is not required for non-motorized vessels that do not launch at Fish and Boat sites.
"Most of that money comes from [users of] motorized boats," he said.
A Fish and Boat survey of boating stakeholders conducted several years ago showed specific regions of the state where boating access improvements were needed. One of those pockets was the Three Rivers area.
"What you see today is a standard size and format and construction of access sites," said Laurel Anders, director of boating and outreach. "What we're seeing is the non-powered boaters have different needs. We're partnering with groups to provide more kayak launches. For instance, we consult with PennDOT in bridge construction projects where we might be able to add launches on the water trails."
More boating access of all kinds is needed in the Three Rivers area, but Arway noted the shorelines are mostly private and there are many commercial docks.
The Responsive Management study showed areas of agreement among boaters, boating industry professionals and government agency professionals. For instance, 33 percent of boaters, 58 percent of industry reps and 45 percent of agency pros agree there are not enough rest rooms at access sites.
But it was perhaps more interesting to note areas in which industry and government agency personnel did not see eye to eye. Among government agency pros 68 percent said invasive species and other environmental concerns were a top priority, while only 43 percent of industry reps considered the issue to be paramount. Other differences:
* Too much regulation and enforcement reduces boaters' enjoyment: industry 34 percent; agency 8 percent.
* Very satisfied with the state's management of boating: industry 16 percent; agency 38 percent.
The boating industry and government agencies are sometimes not on the same page as the boaters they serve. The study noted one "remarkable difference" -- the status of mooring fields is the lowest-rated feature among industry reps, and second lowest among agency pros. Boaters, however, rated mooring fields the most important feature.
Read the entire boating access survey at www.responsivemanagement.com.