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Numbers Reflect the Importance of Recreational Fishing in Wisconsin

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Numbers Reflect the Importance of Recreational Fishing in Wisconsin

The first Saturday in May is a BIG DEAL. It’s the happy day when recreational fishers can begin pursuing a prize walleye or bluegill fish fry in Wisconsin. This year – 2021 – the fishing opener happens as early as it can: May 1, a.k.a. May Day, a festival of spring that many will be celebrating with a rod, reel and a Wisconsin fishing license[1]. Below, two numbers help to illustrate how important recreational fishing is in Wisconsin.

COVID-19 and the Extra 150,000

During a year plagued by COVID-19 and its associated closures and travel restrictions, fishing license sales in Wisconsin soared to roughly 1.5 million, or about 150,000 more licenses compared to 2019[2]. Wisconsin uses the proceeds of these sales to manage fish, wildlife and habitat, educate people about the outdoors and build infrastructure, such as boat ramps.

Wanting to understand what influenced thousands of people to license up for the first time or the for the first time in more than 10 years, the Wisconsin Department of Natural Resources surveyed some of these new fishers. Although most suggested that COVID-19 did not factor into their decision, common reasons for purchasing a license included “a reduction in work/school hours” (16%) and “other leisure activities were no longer available to me” (14%)[3]. Wisconsin was not the only state to issue more fishing licenses in 2020. Surges in license sales were reported across the U.S. To see the uptick in numbers for yourself, check out the American Sportsfishing Association’s Data Dashboard[4].

The Wisconsin recreational fishing scene, like many aspects of normal life, played out differently in 2020 because of the pandemic. Fishing provides considerable health and psychological benefits[5]. It is no wonder more Americans chose to leave home-schooling, job-anxiety, Zoom-calling, binge-watching, and health troubles behind to spend time on the water. Wisconsinites are fortunate in that regard. Wisconsin has more than 15,000 lakes covering nearly a million acres and 13,500 miles of navigable streams and rivers[6].

4,200 tons of fish

Beyond offering respite from a world gone mad, recreational fishing in Wisconsin produces food for the table. In a study published in Fisheries[7], Holly Embke, with University of Wisconsin-Madison’s Center for Limnology, and colleagues, calculate that recreational anglers harvest roughly 4,200 tons of fish from Wisconsin’s inland lakes in an average year, or about 2.5 pounds per fishing license. If people purchased this much fish from grocery stores, the researchers estimate the bill would be roughly $65 million.

Recreational fishing is often viewed as a leisure activity, which can obscure its contribution to nutrition and food security. In fact, possibly 5% of the seafood consumed in the U.S. is caught by a recreational fisher[8]. In addition to improving mental and physical health, recreational fishing can provide an accessible, affordable and sustainable food source. Recreational fishing remains an important component of the Wisconsin’s food system.

Want to fish but don’t want to commit to licenses, rods, reels, tackle, fillet knives, fish guts, etc? Visit a Wisconsin trout farm where you can fish for a modest fee. You won’t go home empty handed! Wisconsin fish farms open to the public for fee-fishing include:


[1] Wisconsin Department of Natural Resources. 2021. Fishing Regulations. Accessed April 28, 2021. https://dnr.wisconsin.gov/topic/fishing/regulations

[2] Wisconsin Policy Forum. 2021. Take it outside: Pandemic spurs outdoor pursuits. Accessed April 28, 2021. https://wispolicyforum.org/research/take-it-outside-pandemic-spurs-outdoor-pursuits/

[3] ibid.

[4] American Sportsfishing Association. 2021. Data Dashboard. Accessed April 28, 2021. https://asafishing.org/data-dashboard/

[5] McManus, A. and Hunt, W. and Storey, J. and White, J., 2011. Identifying the health and well-being benefits of recreational fishing. Report No. 2011/217, Curtin University of Technology, Centre of Excellence for Science, Seafood & Health (CoESSH).

[6] Wisconsin Water Library, University of Wisconsin-Madison. Wisconsin Water Facts. Accessed, April 30, 2021. https://waterlibrary.aqua.wisc.edu/water-facts/#:~:text=Wisconsin%20Waters,of%20navigable%20streams%20and%20rivers.

[7] Embke, H.S., Douglas Beard, T., Jr, Lynch, A.J. and Vander Zanden, M.J. (2020), Fishing for Food: Quantifying Recreational Fisheries Harvest in Wisconsin Lakes. Fisheries, 45: 647-655. https://doi.org/10.1002/fsh.10486

[8] Love, D.C.; Asche, F.; Conrad, Z.; Young, R.; Harding, J.; Nussbaumer, E.M.; Thorne-Lyman, A.L.; Neff, R., 2020. “Food Sources and Expenditures for Seafood in the United States” Nutrients 12, no. 6: 1810. https://doi.org/10.3390/nu12061810