ORLANDO — Former governor of Michigan and current president of the National Association of Manufacturing John Engler held up the front page of Wednesday's Wall Street Journal and read the top headline "Small Business Faces Big Bite."
"We don't need any more big bites," Engler said to a group of 500 industry professionals at the American Sportfishing Association's annual International Convention of Allied Sportfishing Trades show industry breakfast Wednesday morning. "We've been bitten enough."
It was an interesting opening for an industry that lives off big bites.
"There's an opportunity in this economy because the struggles encourage people to get back to the basics," Engler said. "Fishing is a relatively inexpensive sport that does just that."
ASA president and CEO Mike Nussman, who spoke after Engler at the breakfast, also pinned fishing as an escape from the tough day-to-day economy, and pointed at the double-digit percentage rise in fishing license sales from this time last year as an example of the fact that people are still fishing — the problem is they might be using last year's equipment.
"People want a breath of fresh air, both literally and figuratively," Nussman said. "But to be truthful, like the general public, they seem to be deferring higher-end purchases.
"This is a tough business environment, and we're being challenged both individually and as an industry in ways many of us have never been challenged before."
Nussman didn't get into the business numbers, but did refer to other ASA trade shows this year that have been successful, quoting his predecessor, former ASA president Bob Cavanaugh, as to why fishing might be better placed in a bad economy.
"[Cavanaugh] told me 'Sportfishing never seems to rise as high as other industries in the good times, but we never seem to sink quite as low as other industries in tough times,'" Nussman said. "And I think that's proving true."
The poor economy was the central theme of the breakfast, but much of the ASA's plan looks the same as it has the past decade. Nussman broke it down into four initiatives: create new, innovative products to excite anglers across the country and the world; increase participation across the sport, especially youth; expand business opportunities; and manage policy issues that could affect the industry, your business, and the sport itself.
He focused on two of the four in his speech on Wednesday.
Nussman started by looking back at what was.
"With the Bush administration, and of course this was a guy that liked to fish, we saw glimpses of the access battle that is to come of the Hawaiian Islands," Nussman said. "There's a growing perception in this nation that our nation's fisheries are in dire straights. And too often when a problem is identified the solution is to prevent the public's access to those areas.
"We've always maintained that sound fishery management and quality habitat management are the best options."
But it wasn't all bad. Nussman highlighted legislation passed to stop no fishing zones both in the Gulf of Mexico and the south Atlantic and having red drum and striped bass become federal game fish.
"Of course in fresh water, almost every fish is a federal game fish, but in saltwater, this is a new idea," he said.
As for President Obama's administration, Nussman was most excited about Interior Secretary Ken Salazar, who Nussman said has proposed "a 20-million-dollar initiative to promote kids fishing and hunting education."
"I know at least with this secretary, we can work with him," he said.
Access, as it is defined by Nussman, is more than giving a person a place to fish.
"Twenty years ago, access issues were largely confined to setting limits and building boat ramps," he said. "In 2009, we broadened the term 'access' to include policies on the public's right to enjoy and use public water. "
He focused on the recent battles in California with salmon fishing bans, among others, and said ASA is on the front lines fighting those legislative battles.