A World War I warhead and a dead black shark attached to a metal hook are just some of the items that magnet fishermen have picked up around the US since the hobby surged in popularity following the emergence of the coronavirus pandemic.
The hobby, which involves people throwing powerful magnets into waterways in search of treasure and trash, became an excuse for some to get some fresh air and for others to start businesses that cater to these hobbyists.
Joshua Dunlap from Northern California is one such entrepreneur who started Centurion Magnetics in January 2020.
“We didn’t know that COVID started a few months after [we launched] and it actually worked perfectly,” Dunlap told NPR over the phone. “It became a really popular hobby with people looking for ways to get outside to do something that was different. And magnet fishing happened to be one of those things. It’s all over the world, but specifically here in the United States.”
But the growth of these small businesses and the popularity of magnet fishing has been clouded lately. They run into two problems: China’s stranglehold on the rare-earth element used to make these magnets, and the high demand these materials create from electric car makers and other green technology companies.
The element attracting all this attention is neodymium, a difficult-to-produce rare-earth metal that is mostly mined in China, said David Merriman, a research director who leads the rare-earth market study at Wood Mackenzie, an energy research consultancy.
“The most important growth areas for the use of [magnets] is within the engines for electric cars. So any electric motor that uses a permanent magnet, and also the generators for e.g. wind turbines, Merriman told NPR over the phone from Britain.
“So as these markets have really grown quite significantly, there’s a huge kind of transition to green technologies, electric vehicles, renewable energy generation. The demand for these products is increasing quite significantly,” he added.
How China developed its grip on neodymium mining
To understand why China has come to dominate global neodymium production, you have to travel back to the 1980s and 1990s, Merriman said.
At the time, the United States and Australia were major producers of these rare earth elements due to scientists from both countries developing the technology needed to extract these materials, he said. Unlike gold, which can be found in nature as lumps, neodymium is found in various minerals and therefore requires a chemical process to “lease out the rare earths from the mineral structures,” Merriman said.
China quickly realized it had significant deposits of rare earths “that were a byproduct of iron mining,” Merriman said.
“It noted this as an opportunity,” he said of China at the time. “And that’s because of more relaxed environment [and] social regulation within Chinese industry during that period, it was able to produce material very cheaply. So China started to undercut the production of rare earths within these other regions, driving the price down and basically taking market share globally.”
In the decades that have followed, China has continued to outperform other countries by expanding its reach thanks to state backing and state control of mining, Merriman said.
“China now dominates the entire rare earth supply chain and into the production of high quality rare earth permanent magnets and permanent magnet materials,” Merriman said.
“So it’s been a long game, I suppose, from the Chinese government taking market share and then expanding its market share across different stages of the supply chain, to the point where it’s now a vital part of the supply chain for many kinds of high-tech applications, including some military applications as well,” he said.
In November 2021, China controlled 87% of the global neodymium market, according to a report from MacroPoloa think tank Paulson Institute based in Chicago.
These magnets have been called “vital inputs” to electric vehicle motors, MacroPolo added. The element can also be found in smartphones and guided missiles.
Demand for neodymium “is likely to grow by an estimated 18% per year until 2030,” MacroPolo said. This noise is already being felt by small magnet fishing companies in the United States
There are plenty of metal “fish” but not enough lures
Jose Torres was tired of sitting in his kayak and not getting a bite on his fishing line in Southwest Florida.
The infant YouTube channel he launched in 2013 to chronicle his best catches barely getting attention due to larger, more resourced fishing channels and bigger, more exciting catches captured on video.
Then, last summer, Torres stumbled upon magnet fishing videos, 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 by or people throw things into the water, accidentally drop things into the water from their boats,” Torres said of why he decided for. to become a magnet fisherman.
Torres’ YouTube channel has grown from a few hundred subscribers to more than 3,000 today, he said. This has allowed him to monetize his YouTube channel with advertisements.
He has also partnered with Centurion Magnetics as an affiliate, which earns him a commission from every fishing magnet sale made using his unique code. This partnership was supposed to bring Torres significant money, but the reality has been anything but, he said.
“A lot of the problems we had that I’ve experienced is that my subscribers were emailing me left and right saying, ‘Hey, I’ve been trying to buy this magnet for the last month, two months, and it’s sold out, it’s sold out, when will you get this in stock?’ Torres said.
He said he has lost “hundreds if not thousands of dollars in commission sales revenue due to the lack of availability [and] their inability to get these magnets from China. So the industry has taken a big hit’.
Keeping magnets in stock is one of the most difficult parts of Dunlap’s job as CEO Centurion Magnetics.
The combination of China’s control of the neodymium market, the high demand for these magnets and the global supply chain issues plaguing almost every industry due to the pandemic have caused several Centurion products to remain out of stock, Dunlap said.
“You know, just honestly staying in stock is still the hardest thing that hits us… We would keep building momentum, and then we went out of stock,” he said. “Even if you look at our website now, we’re sold out of a whole line of magnets. We are trying to get them back in stock; it’s quite an achievement.”
Call the bomb squad
While the growth of magnet fishing as a hobby remains uncertain, fishermen like Jake Cowart of Georgia are finding they are content with the magnets purchased at the beginning of the pandemic.
When COVID-19 shut down the film business in Georgia, Cowart said his brother Adam — who are both dressers — was bored and convinced him to try magnet fishing after seeing a video of someone in the United Kingdom doing it.
The brothers have since pulled up relics from the 1800s, safes, coins and dozens of weapons, Jake Cowart said. In July, Cowart said he fished out a World War I 37mm warhead that still had a fuse attached to it.
“I had to call an EOD [Explosive Ordnance Disposal specialist] and bomb squads out to get them to take that thing and defuse it,” Cowart told NPR over the phone. “I was scared, to be honest with you, because it’s a warhead and it can explode in any shape for influence. And it stuck to my magnet on the explosive side. So I was really, really, really freaked out about that.”
Cowart has yet to hear what happened to the bomb after law enforcement officials and EOD specialists came to retrieve it, he said.
Cowart and his brother have also pulled up guns that have helped solve cold cases, he said.
“No murders, but they were all gun shop robberies and things that were stolen from some older older people, you know, that closed some of the cases that were out in Athens, [Ga.]”, he said. “It’s just something good to get out there for everybody to see, you know… we clean up. We don’t want to get a bad, bad reputation that people think and we try to try to catch all these people. But at the end of the day, if they’ve done something wrong, they have to be caught.”
The world of magnet fishing and how China and green tech threaten it: NPR
Source link The world of magnet fishing and how China and green tech threaten it: NPR