Minnesotans registered about 9,000 more boats in 2016 compared to the year before. That’s not a big increase, but it might signal the end of a nearly 10-year slump.
After the 2008 recession hit, boat registrations plummeted and are just now climbing up again, according to data from the Minnesota Department of Natural Resources.
"A lot of people didn't register their boats" after the recession, said Stan Linnell, the DNR’s boating and water safety manager. "It’s been fairly stable after that -- 2016 numbers are back up."
Minnesota has about 148 registered watercraft per 1,000 people. That includes kayaks, canoes, pontoons and other motorized boats. That’s less than the high-160s peak before the 2008 recession, but still slightly up from 2015.
"You may have to sell your boat during hard times," Linnell said. "People now don’t have as much time to spend outdoors ... If they do, they're choosing shorter-term activities, or they’re renting."
Counties in northern Minnesota, like Cook, Lake of the Woods and Itasca, have the most boats registered per capita. Those areas are a haven for resorts and wilderness outfitters, so it's not surprising that most of the registrations are for canoes or kayaks.
Though the rate of canoes registered has been falling since about 2006, rates for kayaks have been increasing.
Linnell said a slowdown in kayak registrations between 2012 and 2015 was due to a rule change only requiring boats longer than 10 feet to be registered. Previously, boats longer than nine feet required registration. Many kayaks are between nine and 10 feet long.
Similarly, the DNR began tracking paddleboard registrations in 2013, and their growing popularity is clear.
In 1990, small motor boats less than 16 feet made up the majority of all registered motor boats in the state. But since 2000 the ratio of bigger boats to smaller boats has steadily grown.
Florida registers the most boats in the nation in total, though Minnesota has by far the highest per capita registration rate, according to 2015 Coast Guard data. Wisconsin comes in second with 108 boats per 1,000 people.
The number of registered boats could be even higher if non-motorized and specialized boats were added to Minnesota’s total, Linnell said. Minnesota doesn’t require registration of non-motorized boats less than 10 feet long, and certain specialty boats such as duckboats used for hunting and riceboats used during harvest season.
The number of boats registered also has implications for the DNR’s funding. Gov. Mark Dayton recommended an increase in watercraft registration fees in his proposed budget this year, but they were not included in the final budget.
"You can imagine that the money isn't going as far as it used to be," Linnell said.
Ethan Nelson is a student at the University of Minnesota on assignment for the Star Tribune.
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