Joel Piatek, left, owner of Fish Headz charter company, and Al Rucka fish on Lake St. Clair Wednesday. Piatek said 2014 has been his busiest year. (David Coates / The Detroit News)
Thousands of Michiganians look to the open waters for fun, relaxation and entertainment. They’ll find lots of it this weekend.
Hydroplanes will be ripping up the Detroit River during Detroit Gold Cup races, sailboats will be clipping along in Bell’s Beer Bayview Mackinac Race that starts in Port Huron, and Bay City will host the Ballads and Brews event to raise money for the return of graceful tall ships to the city in 2016.
The confluence of the three events is a testament to the importance of water activities to Michigan’s identity and economy. According to the governor’s office, recreational boating has an annual $7.4 billion economic impact and supports more than 58,000 jobs, from boat manufacturing to servicing to sail-making.
When the weather is nice — and even when it isn’t — lakes large and small are jammed with anglers, Jet Skiers and all kinds of boats from leisurely pontoons to speedy racers to sailboats.
Michigan ranks third in the nation in boating registrations. There are 1 million registered boats and an estimated 300,000 non-registered canoes and kayaks. The Great Lakes state trails only Florida (first) and Minnesota.
“If we were to register all watercraft including non-powered vessels under 16 feet — canoes and kayaks like other states do, which we don’t — we would more than likely be first,” said Nicki Polan, executive director of the Michigan Boating Industries Association.
Polan said the state also has the third largest boating market, which includes the purchase of new boat, motor, trailer and accessory sales. In 2013the market was more than $650 million, up slightly from 2012. Florida is ranked first ahead of Texas, Polan said.
But just like the state’s primary economic driver, the auto industry, the boating industry took a hit during the recent economic downtown.
Mark Weber, event director for the Detroit River Regatta Association, which puts on the Detroit Gold Cup, said boat sales were down by more than 50 percent in 2007-08.
“Boats were the first thing to go,” said Weber, who once owned a marina. “A car is more important to daily life than a pleasure boat. It is a luxury not a necessity. ”
But the industry has been on the upswing since 2012.
Weber said his friends who are still in the industry say 2014 is one the best years they’ve had in many.
“I think people are now feeling better about the economy. We are seeing a rebound,” Polan said. “People are pretty tired of not spending on things that are important to them. I have heard people say ‘it is time to start living again.’ People who put off a boat purchase now feel more comfortable.”
Brisk fishing season
Michigan also has a thriving recreational fishing industry to go hand in hand with boating.
More than 1.2 million fishing licenses were sold last year, said Elyse Walter, Michigan Department of Natural Resources, Fisheries Division spokeswoman. That’s on par with 2012, she said.
The American Sportsfishing Association put Michigan third in the nation for angler expenditures, which reached nearly $2.5 billion. Such expenditures include fishing licenses, tackle, fuel and booking fishing charters.
Joel Piatek, owner of the St. Clair Shores fishing charter Fish Headz, said business is brisk this season.
“I am probably busier than I have ever been before,” Piatek said. “I would say on average I have at least four charters a week. It’s not just locals but those from out of state who hear that Lake St. Clair is a top fishing destination.”
According to the American Sportsfishing Association, in 2013 Michigan was the second most popular fishing destination by non-resident anglers, behind Florida, generating more than $320 million.
National fishing magazine Bassmaster included six Michigan lakes in its list of the “100 Best Bass Lakes of 2014.” Lake St. Clair, which took the top spot in 2013, slipped this year to 16th.
It is estimated there were up to 500,000 recreational boating visits to Macomb County along Lake St. Clair in 2013, and nearly half of them were from out of state, said Gerard Santoro, Macomb’s program manager for land and water resources.
“So what does that mean to the local economy? This is what we need to get our arms around,” Santoro said. “We need a hotel that is accessible to those who come and fish.”
The county is studying a proposal in Harrison Township along Lake St. Clair to make it more accessible to visitors and boaters. Officials are looking at improved water access, a possible hotel and easy links to other waterfront attractions from New Baltimore to St. Clair Shores.
Santoro said there has never been a complete impact study on what the boating and fishing industries mean to Macomb County, which has 60 marinas.
Tradition of boating
Michigan has 3,288 miles of Great Lakes shoreline, exceeding that of the United States’ Atlantic coastline of 2,069 miles. It has more than 11,000 inland lakes and ponds and more than 36,000 miles of rivers and streams. The state’s waters are home to 154 species of fish.
While the boating industry has a great economic impact on the state, it isn’t an activity just for the wealthy.
“You can get on the water for less than $12,000 for a small fishing boat or less, if it is an aluminum fishing boat, canoe or kayak,” Polan said. “Boats don’t depreciate. It is an investment upfront but it is a smart investment.”
She added the boating tradition is an important part of Michigan’s history.
“It is a heritage sport that is important to the people of this state,” Polan said. “They’ve grown up on the water. And boating and fishing traditions have been passed down to from generation to generation. For a lot of people it is a quality of life issue.”
Boat sales up
Florida and Texas are the two states that are ahead of Michigan in new boats, motors, trailers, and accessory sales in 2013.
Sales of new boats, motors, trailers and accessories in Michigan sales continued in 2013 to grow. It’s the fourth year in a row of increased sales.
■2010: $350,805,000 up 10.6 percent
■2011: $545,154,000 up 29.5 percent
■2012: $645,493,000 up 42.1 percent
■2013: $656,111,000 up 1.6 percent
Source: Michigan Boat Industries Association