A World War I-era warhead and a dead blacktip shark attached to a metal hook are just some of the items magnet fishermen have been hauling up in the US after the hobby became popular following the coronavirus pandemic.
The hobby, which involves people throwing powerful magnets into waterways in search of treasure and trash, has become an opportunity for some to get a breath of fresh air, and for others to open a business that caters to these hobbyists.
Joshua Dunlap from Northern California is one such entrepreneur, who founded Centurion Magnetics in January 2020.
“We didn’t know that the COVID started after a few months [we launched] and it actually worked great,” Dunlap told NPR by phone. – It has become a very popular hobby among people looking for ways to get outside to do something different. And magnet fishing was one of those things. It’s all over the world, but it’s very specific, right here in the U.S.”
But the growth of these small businesses and the popularity of magnet fishing have recently become dim. They faced two challenges: China’s pressure on the rare earths used to make these magnets, and high demand for the materials from electric car makers and other green technology companies.
The element that’s getting all this attention is neodymium, a rare earth metal that’s difficult to mine and that’s mostly mined in China, said David Merriman, director of research who leads rare-earth market research at Wood Mackenzie, an energy research consultancy. .
“The main areas of growth in the use of [magnets] found in motors for electric vehicles. So any electric motor that uses a permanent magnet, as well as generators for, say, wind turbines, too,” Merriman told NPR by phone from the UK.
“So as these markets are really growing quite significantly, there’s a huge shift to green technology, electric vehicles, renewable energy generation. The demand for these products is growing quite significantly,” he added.
How China developed control over neodymium mining
To understand why China came to dominate global neodymium production, you have to go back to the 1980s and 1990s, Merriman said.
At the time, the United States and Australia were the main producers of these rare earth elements because scientists in both countries were developing the technology needed to extract the materials, he said. Unlike gold, which can be found naturally as nuggets, neodymium is found in various minerals and thus requires a chemical process to “separate the rare earths from the mineral structures,” Merriman said.
China soon realized it had significant deposits of rare earth elements “which are a byproduct of iron mining,” Merriman said.
“He saw it as an opportunity,” he said of China at the time. “And this is because of a weaker ecology [and] social regulation in Chinese industry during that period, it was able to produce material very cheaply. Therefore, China began to reduce the production of rare earth elements in other regions, reducing the price and effectively taking the share of the world market.’
Over the following decades, China continued to compete with other countries, expanding its reach through government support and government control over mining, Merriman said.
“China now dominates the entire rare-earth supply chain, right down to the production of rare-earth permanent magnets and high-quality permanent magnet materials,” Merriman said.
“So I think the Chinese government has taken market share and then expanded its share at different stages of the supply chain to the point where it is now a vital part of the supply chain for many. kinds of high-tech applications, including some military applications,” he said.
As of November 2021, China controlled 87% of the global neodymium market, according to a report by MacroPolo, a Chicago-based Paulson Institute think tank.
Macropolo added that these magnets are called “important input elements” for electric vehicle engines. The element can also be found in smartphones and guided missiles.
Demand for neodymium is “likely to grow by about 18% per year until 2030,” MacroPolo said. The buzz is already being felt by small magnet fishing businesses in the US
There are enough metal “fish”, but there are few lures
Jose Torres is tired of sitting in his kayak and not getting a bite on the fishing line in Southwest Florida.
The fledgling YouTube channel he started in 2013 to chronicle his best catches has gotten little attention from bigger fishing channels with more resources and bigger, more exciting catches captured on video.
Then, last summer, Torres stumbled upon a magnet fishing video, and “it changed my YouTube channel tremendously,” he said.
“I have access to thousands of boat ramps, thousands of fishing piers, thousands of seawalls where pedestrians walk or where people throw things into the water, accidentally throw things into the water from their boats,” Torres said of why he decided to become magnet fisherman.
Torres’ YouTube channel has grown from a few hundred subscribers to more than 3,000 today, he said. This allowed him to monetize his YouTube channel through advertising.
He also works with Centurion Magnetics as an affiliate, giving him a commission on every fishing magnet sale made using his unique code. The partnership was supposed to make Torres a lot of money, but in reality, that was not the case, he said.
“A lot of the problems that we’ve had that I’ve run into is that my subscribers have been emailing me left and right saying, ‘Hey, I’ve been trying to buy this magnet for the last month, two months, and its out of stock out of stock; when will you guys get these things in stock?” ” Torres said.
He said he lost “hundreds if not thousands of dollars in sales commission income due to lack of availability [and] their inability to get these magnets from China. So the industry took a big hit.”
Maintaining a stock of magnets is one of the most challenging parts of Dunlap’s job as CEO of Centurion Magnetics.
A combination of China’s control of the neodymium market, high demand for these magnets and global supply chain problems that have hit nearly every industry due to the pandemic have meant that many Centurion products remain unavailable, Dunlap said.
“You know, just staying in stock is still the hardest thing that hits us… We kept building momentum and then we ran out of stock,” he said. “Even if you look at our website now, we’re out of a whole line of magnets. We are trying to get them back in stock; it’s a real feat.”
Summon the explosive
While the growth of magnet fishing as a hobby remains uncertain, anglers like Jake Cowart of Georgia feel good about the magnets they bought early in the pandemic.
When COVID-19 shut down the film business in Georgia, Cowart said his brother Adam — both framers — was bored and convinced him to try magnet fishing after seeing a video of someone in the U.K. doing it.
Since then, the brothers have pulled out relics from the 1800s, safes, coins and dozens of weapons, Jake Cowart said. In July, Cowart said he recovered a World War I-era 37mm warhead with the fuze still attached.
“I should have called EOD [Explosive Ordnance Disposal specialist] and bombing to get them to take the thing and defuse it,” Cowart told NPR by phone. – To be honest, I was scared because it is a warhead and it can explode with any impact. And it got stuck on my magnet on the explosive side. So I was really, really, really scared by that.”
Cowart has yet to hear what happened to the bomb after it was retrieved by law enforcement and EOD specialists, he said.
Cowart and his brother also pulled out guns that helped crack the case, he said.
“No murders, but they were all gun shop robberies and things that were stolen from some elderly people, you know, which closed some of the cases that were opened in Athens, [Ga.]” he said. “It’s just something nice to get out there for everybody to see, you know, that … we’re cleaning things up. We don’t want to get the bad, bad reputation that people think, and we’re trying to try and catch all those people. But at the end of the day, if they’ve done something wrong, they have to be caught.”