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Commentaries and editorials

Five Questions with Liz Hamilton, Executive Director
of the NW Sportfishing Industry Association

by Laura Gunderson
The Oregonian, March 11, 2009

When Liz Hamilton read of Joe's Sports & Outdoor's recent bankruptcy filing, the executive director of the Northwest Sportfishing Industry Association felt first for her friends.

Joe's, a 57-year-old local retailing icon, had helped create Hamilton's organization and many of the Portland-based retailer's executives had sat on the trade group's board.

Then the avid fisherwoman considered how the loss of another local business could affect her fellow anglers and the hundreds of local businesses that supply Joe's.

Once considered recession-proof, the sportfishing industry has been hit particularly hard this year, Hamilton said, between years of fluctuating salmon-fishing seasons and the recession's effect on consumers' eagerness to spend and tightening credit markets.

The Oregonian recently posed Five Questions to Hamilton; her answers have been edited for clarity and length.

Liz Hamilton

In terms of your retailer members, is Joe's alone in its struggles?

Absolutely not. The entire sportfishing industry, whether you look at these large retailers, mom-and-pop tackle shops or a person whose business is based out of a boat. They've been suffocating for years.

In particular, the smaller businesses are folding like chairs -- we lost The Duffle Bag last year, a chain of three outdoors retailers in Seattle.

The primary reason is that current (salmon fishing) management frameworks have been making seasons shorter and less predictable. And, as with other industries, the economy has been another big hit, both in terms of credit and consumer confidence. Our industry suffered a double whammy.

How has this industry fared in past downturns?

People have tended to fish when times are troubled, both because you can put fish on the table but also, when times are rough, spending time on a river with family and friends makes people feel better.

Look back at the late '80s early '90s and take one area, the tackle side, and you'd see the industry doing well. More recently, there's been that "staycation" concept; fishing allows people to stay close to home to spend discretionary money.

In 2001 and 2002, Oregon had just about highest unemployment rate in nation, and yet our industry was posting double-digit gains. Last year, gas prices were reaching near record highs and yet when the Columbia River season opened, for a brief time, we had nearly record participation. The boat launches would get so full that if you didn't get there by 6 a.m., there was no place to park.

What are the specific problems Northwest sports and outdoors retailers face?

Management frameworks have driven customers away with unpredictable seasons. You book a trip, and you don't know whether you're going to be able to take it. When seasons are short, they can become crowded and less pleasant to participate in. It's a customer discouragement plan.

For retailers, that meant demand was suppressed because customer needs were not being met.

Retailers here typically order merchandise during the first week of January at wholesale buying shows, but this year, we didn't hear about when the Columbia River spring chinook season -- the usual fishing kickoff -- would open until late February. That meant retailers couldn't order or move goods with any confidence and that put a damper on purchases.

Your group is supporting House and Senate bills before the legislature this year. If passed, how would they help members of your trade group?

We see the bills (HB 2734 and SB 554 ) creating a shift to help both the sportfishing industry, as well as commercial fisherman. This is not a time to hurt jobs, but help jobs in both sectors.

The bills would create off-channel areas for commercial fishing that would allow that industry to get as many or more fish than they do today. For sportfishing, the bills could double what's done in the Columbia River and increase opportunities off the coastline.

We want to look at this from a holistic place: How we can provide better preservation and grow the economy. Those fish are worth their weight in gold.

What do you see as the effect on the local sportfishing industry, specifically in the retail area, if Joe's were to close for good?

Without Joe's, there would be a ripple affect to 50 to 100 small businesses that would be difficult to contemplate.

Joe's was a corporation with a commitment to buying from local vendors. We have unique fisheries here and we've got local manufacturers building specifically for them. There are boats built by hand here for our rivers, tackles, rods and reels for these fisheries. You're not a player here unless you're building specific gear for here.

Joe's always focused on those small vendors, who really owed their success to having a regional store with that many outlets purchasing their tackle. It remains to be seen how that same commitment is or isn't being kept from companies from other places.

For customers who are used to having stores in their neighborhood, there would be one more barrier to participating in this sport and supporting this industry.

Laura Gunderson
Five Questions with Liz Hamilton, Executive Director of the NW Sportfishing Industry Association
The Oregonian, March 11, 2009

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