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"Wear Your Lifejackets": Water Accidents Increased in 2020

people fishing
A family fishing. (Photo courtesy Department of Wildlife Resources)

*This story was reported by VPM News intern Clara Haizlett

Although many state agencies have struggled financially throughout the pandemic, officials say the Department of Wildlife Resources hasn’t skipped a beat. But with more people getting outdoors, there are more concerns about safety, especially on the water.  

The DWR is responsible for the management of inland fisheries, wildlife, and recreational boating in Virginia. Unlike other state agencies, the department isn’t primarily funded by tax dollars. Instead, it’s funded through the sale of licenses and a federal excise tax on guns and ammunition, among other sources. 

Fortunately for the department, the number of people buying licenses has been on the rise in the past few years. From 2018-2019, the total number of hunting license sales increased by 25%. From 2019-2020, that number went up by another 16%. Fishing license sales have also increased by about 25% each year since 2018. The majority of these sales are coming from Virginia residents. 

Paige Pearson is the department’s public information officer, and she says it’s been a busy year. 

“If anything, we've probably worked harder this past year, just to make sure we don't fall behind,” she said. 

Pearson credits the agency with reaching a more diverse audience, and says they’ve increased outreach over all. But the pandemic has also contributed to the surge, as people who are stuck at home now have the time to try out new outdoor activities. 

“That tells you more people are getting outside and more people are interested in hunting and fishing, which is wonderful,” she said. 

In 2020, about 12,000 people enrolled in Hunter Education courses, a 20% increase from the previous year. The classes are mostly all online now, a transition which Pearson says has been easy. 

Although hunter safety in the woods has remained relatively stable, Pearson says the department has seen an increase in water-related accidents. In 2020, there was a 21% increase in all boating incidents and a 40% increase in injuries beyond first aid. 

“There's more people in the water, and there's gonna be more accidents,” she said.

The DWR manages some inland waterways, including parts of the James River. In 2020, the James River Park System registered over 2 million visitors -- a new record. 

Pearson says more Virginians are getting out on kayaks, canoes and paddle boards and that’s where they’re seeing the majority of the incidents. Of last year’s 21 fatalities on DWR managed waterways, about half occured on paddle crafts. 

Unlike motorboats, paddle crafts don’t have to be registered. Additionally, paddlers aren’t required to go through any safety training. 

“So we don't have any way to talk to them,” she said. “And so, we have been trying to figure out how do we do that. Do we make them start to register? We don't know.” 

Starting last month, an access pass is now required to use boating access sites  managed by the DWR. She says that’s one way the department can have a touchpoint with new boaters.

“We need to do better about preaching safety, wear your life jacket and all that.” 

Both residents and non-residents can go to Go Outdoors Virginia to purchase a DWR access permit.