If the numbers hold and Pennsylvanians really are turning to low-cost outdoor recreation in tough economic times, it would mark a reversal in a 20-year trend away from outdoor participation, and a significant boon to the state.
The spike in sales, however, could be a mere statistical anomaly - mild weather luring anglers to buy licenses early to fish at special-regulation waters where trout fishing was legal before Saturday, the start of the season. If that's the case, a continuing downward spiral in fishing and other outdoor activities could foreshadow an increasingly harsh economic climate for outdoors industries as well as negative health and social impacts among children and young adults, described by one best-selling author as "nature-deficit disorder."
Last week, the Pennsylvania Fish and Boat Commission painted an optimistic view of license sale statistics.
"With this spring's record warm weather and the significant jump in license sales, [Fish and Boat] expects the opening day to be very busy," the agency said in a written statement. "The 20 percent jump in license sales amounts to about 53,000 more anglers who have bought a license compared to this same time last year."
A few days later, on April 9, executive director John Arway said that a reversal in the trend was not conclusive but that the numbers had continued to rise.
"We're up about 60,000 license sales compared to last year, up about 22 percent," Arway said.
Last year, Pennsylvania sold a little more than 800,000 fishing licenses, which cost $22.70 each for residents 16 and older. That's down from more than one million sold each year from 1977 through 1995.
A 22 percent increase in license sales would add about $3.5 million to an agency funded mostly by the anglers who use its services.
The Fish and Boat Commission spent about $52 million of its $60 million annual budget in 2011. Most of its spending is on fisheries management, and most of its revenue comes from license and permit fees. Additional funding comes from a federal excise tax on fishing-related equipment and motor-fuel sales, and timber and mineral rights leases on agency-owned properties. No money for wildlife management comes from the state general fund.
Additional revenue from license sales would be used to improve the agency's oversight of nongame aquatic animals and reptiles, Arway said.
Fishing-license sales have fluctuated about 4 percent in each of the last several years. A 20 percent shift is unusual and substantial.
The most recent U.S. Fish and Wildlife Service National Survey of Fishing, Hunting and Wildlife-Associated Recreation, released in 2006, found that Pennsylvania anglers spent nearly $1.8 million a year in retail sales and logged nearly 18 million fishing days - not including those of children, who aren't required to have fishing licenses.
Nationwide, the American Sportfishing Association acknowledged a downward trend in fishing-related spending. Yet the trade group reported that more than one million jobs are supported by anglers, and $45 billion in annual retail sales are racked up by about 40 million anglers - 33 times the average attendance per game at all Major League Baseball parks combined, the association said.