AFTCO was established in 1958 in Newport Beach, Calif., as the American Fishing Tackle Co. by J.C. Axelson, a pioneer in big-game tackle development. In 1973, Milt and Peggie Shedd acquired the business and oversaw its evolution into a brand that focuses on conservation as well as big-game angling.
From the early days, Milt Shedd taught his son Bill, who now runs the company, to focus on protecting the fragile marine environment on which their business relies. Bill joined the company in 1974 and in 1989 launched the AFTCO Clothing Division, which 10 years later expanded its apparel offerings with marine artist Guy Harvey’s “all-over print” T-shirts.
In May, Shedd’s conservation efforts earned him the annual Eddie Smith Manufacturer of the Year Award, presented by the Center for Coastal Conservation at the American Boating Congress. Milt Shedd was a co-founder of SeaWorld, and Bill is chairman of the board at SeaWorld Research Institute — the nonprofit that focuses on science and research. He’s also a member of the International Game Fish Association’s board of trustees and sits on the boards of the Center for Coastal Conservation and the California Artificial Reef Enhancement program. He won the 2014 Californian of the Year award from the Outdoor Writers Association of California.
We asked Shedd how the marine industry can combat the notion that its players don’t care about the resource they are so closely aligned with.
Q: How is conservation tied to the boating and fishing industries, and how do you factor it into your business model?
A: For the fishing industry it’s obvious that if we don’t have healthy fisheries, we have no business, so frankly it’s in our selfish interest. I’ve heard Thom Dammrich [president of the National Marine Manufacturers Association] say something like 60 percent of boat sales are tied to fishing in one form or another, so that same thing applies to the boating industry. If there are no fish to catch and if there’s not reasonable access, then your business dies.
From a company standpoint, I think what’s made AFTCO different really starts with my father. When I was a kid, he said, “Bill, your mom and I took creatures from the sea … and we made money from that. What that means is, we’ve got a responsibility to do the right thing for the ocean. In your lifetime, you’re going to benefit from that, so you also have to find ways to contribute back to the ocean environment.”
I guess the point is that we at AFTCO have had great leeway to find things we think are important to the conservation effort. I actually said to my dad early on, “You know, I’m busy running a business and I’m not so sure. I don’t disagree with the statement that we have a responsibility, but I’m not sure it’s such a good business move because it takes time and energy away from direct business efforts.” And his response was, “Well, Bill, if you do the right thing and you do it long enough, I can’t tell you why or how or what, that good things will follow. It may or may not be immediately good for business, but I think you’ll find over the long term that it probably is. And if it’s not, so what? That’s who we are and that’s what we’re going to do.”
I think in our case, the most important thing was building a relationship with Guy Harvey. Dad got to know Guy and Guy got to know dad, and I got to know Guy. Guy also has been greatly involved in conservation and the science part of it, as dad had been and I have been. It’s led to a clothing business with Guy as our licensee, and a very significant business. It’s been great for Guy and his business, as well. In 1999 we made just the printed shirts, and then in 2004 that expanded to all his clothing items to include the shirts and embroidery items. That partnership has increased his business greatly and has increased our business greatly. It’s been a very important thing. If we had not had the reputation with the fishing world for being leaders in the conservation area … I don’t know that Guy would’ve ever given us the chance to get in that partnership. Yes, we had to have the clothing expertise and the marketing capabilities, but I think the probability is that would never have happened without the conservation piece. That’s a long-winded answer to the question of whether it’s worth it to take away from business issues and invest in conservation. In our experience, yes, it is.
Q: It sounds as if your dad instilled in you at a fairly young age that the benefits of doing the right thing would ultimately be good for business, which is pretty cool in the timeframe we’re talking about.
A: You know, that’s really true of life in general. If you do the right thing, and you do it long enough, even if you don’t see immediate results, good things do come. That’s true with raising our kids; that’s true with everything.
Q: Can you give me a bit of the company’s history?
A: AFTCO was started in 1958 as a fishing tackle company. It made primarily roller guides. Roller guides are the parts that go on fishing rods used by big-game fishermen catching marlin and tuna and other big fish that will be on the line for a long time. They’ll pull a lot of line out and bring some back, so the line, when it wears on a stationary surface like a ring guide, can wear out. A roller guide has a wheel in it, a roller, so it keeps your line stronger for a longer period of time, so you have a better chance of catching that big fish. That has been our main business, and then we made a number of other parts for big-game fishing rods and accessories. So our business has been focused on salt water. I can honestly say that you’d have a hard time finding a single serious big-game fishing boat in any harbor anywhere in the world that didn’t have something of AFTCO on it.
Then I started the clothing business in 1989. It’s grown to where the clothing is the bigger part of our business. We have two separate brands — the AFTCO clothing line, and we’re the licensee for the Guy Harvey line, as well. Most of your readers would know of that business from the millions of T-shirts we sell every year. I’m sure lots of them and their kids own Guy Harvey T-shirts and other Guy Harvey clothing. The original AFTCO fishing short we made, starting in 1989, is still the most popular and widely known fishing short in the world.
Q: Can you talk about some of the efforts your company has made with tagging and developments in tackle that have changed the industry?
A: I think the most significant thing we started back in the mid-’80s is a program called the AFTCO Tag Flag program. That played a major role in just educating people about the importance of tag and release. It ran for about 15 years. We linked up with the major sportfishing magazines and they became sponsors. They agreed that people who won the awards for tagging the most fish would be listed in the magazines, and they would tell the story about tag and release for the year. Those who tagged the most in a given species got this prestigious Tag Flag. People loved to see their names in the magazine. That encouraged a lot more people to become familiar with tag and release. Awards would be given out at the annual IGFA [International Game Fish Association] dinner every year. The major thing about tag and release or other conservation efforts is that you’ve got to start with creating awareness. We get fed a lot of inaccurate information from extreme environmental groups and others. Awareness is really at the foundation of being able to better deal with ocean issues.
Q: I imagine that’s tough because ocean issues are underwater — in another realm. People can’t see the issues you’re trying to bring awareness to.
A: Well, that’s the key. The ocean is out of sight, out of mind. It’s like the tip of the iceberg. You see what’s on the surface and think it’s all good, but there may be real issues underneath. I think as far as creating awareness, something that is really misunderstood is that boaters and anglers have been the true marine conservationists. They’re the people who have been looking after the fish for the last 50 years. Almost every major campaign to help the fish in the last 40 years or so hasn’t come from the environmental community. It’s come from fishing and boating communities. They contribute about $1.22 billion every year in licenses and excise taxes that go back to states for fisheries agencies. If you look at who brought back the white sea bass and the halibut in California, that was sport fishermen with gill net bans and our hatchery program. Same thing throughout the Gulf — the people who brought back the redfish and trout populations. It was sport fishermen who did that with their gill net bans. It was sport fishermen who built the artificial reefs and drove efforts to bring back the striped bass in the Mid-Atlantic. But the general public doesn’t really understand that, and certainly even many in fishery management positions, and in the state and federal legislatures, don’t understand it. They think the fishermen are the bad guys and that we’re the takers of resources.
Q: That’s something I wanted to ask you about. AFTCO has clearly made this huge investment in protecting the marine environment. How do you get that word out when there is this idea that recreational anglers are the ones pillaging the resource?
A: We just need to do a better job of educating the public and legislators and fisheries managers. The American Sportfish Association government affairs committee, of which I am the chairman, [is putting together an education plan] that both the boating and fishing industries can fund. People just don’t understand. When I tell you that boaters and anglers spend $1.2 billion every year in taxes and license fees, I’m sure that surprises you. The environmental community gets so much credit for protecting resources, and they contribute zero that I know of in dollars toward those agencies looking after the fish. So it’s incumbent on us to get our message out. We’ve allowed the extreme environmental community to steal from us the true conservation moniker we have spent 40 years earning the right to own. And we’ve let them do that from better marketing. That’s silly because not only does that hurt the boating and fishing communities, it actually hurts the resource because we’re the guys actually doing the work to help the resource out. We are not as effective with our legislators and our fisheries managers because we’re not looked at as being the protectors and defenders.
Q: Do you think there’s confusion on the part of the general public between commercial and recreational fishing? I know that’s one of the things the industry is trying to change with the Magnuson-Stevens Act.
A: There is a huge misperception. Commercial fishermen are not bad guys. I know many of them; they’re good people. But the reality is there is some [equipment] that is just very destructive toward the creatures in the ocean. One thing we as a company and the recreational fishing industry have done generally is to work to get rid of that gear. That includes gill nets, longlines, and fish traps and bottom trawls. That’s been one of the main things the sport fishing community has done, in addition to enhancing and creating more fish through artificial reefs, hatcheries, and reseeding oyster beds and seagrass areas. They talk about fishermen generically and all being the same, and you can’t do that. A recreational fisherman with a single hook and a single line can’t be compared to a fisherman using a bottom trawl or a gill net or a longline because they’re apples and oranges.
Q: Do you think that factors into the difficulty in changing Magnuson-Stevens to treat the two differently? What needs to change?
A: Two things need to change fundamentally, and hopefully both are being addressed in Magnuson in the next go-round. One is, we must create better data as to who the recreational fishing community is, and what it does and does not do. We need to be able to quantify how many fish that community actually takes and how many anglers participate, and how important — or unimportant, whatever the facts show — this community is. Better data will show how many fish the recreational fishing community actually is killing.
The other thing Magnuson will hopefully address this year is allocation. If you go back 50 years, there weren’t that many people living along the coasts. There weren’t nearly as many fishermen because there weren’t that many people there. The vast majority of fish were being targeted by the commercial industry, which was much stronger and much bigger. Today over 90 percent of the fish we buy are not being caught by American fishermen. They’re fish that come from out of the country. Those commercial fishermen used to provide a much higher percentage of fish eaten by people in the country, and there were fewer recreational fishermen. Allocation was based on that dynamic. But the world has changed. A much higher percentage of the population has moved to the coasts. There are more people who want to enjoy the bounty and resource, and the allocation of the past, where a few people are allocated the majority of the resource, just doesn’t make sense anymore. Part of what we hope happens is those allocation issues get looked at so the resource can be used [by] most people for the maximum benefit. If it’s shown that the maximum benefit is commercial activity, then it should be allocated more for commercial activity. If it’s shown that the maximum benefit is recreational activity, then it should be allocated for recreational activity.
You know, 200 years ago someone was allowed to cut whatever trees he wanted in the forest and make a commercial business using a national resource owned by the public. Or if he wanted to go shoot deer and other animals and then sell them, he could do that. But he can’t do it today because the world has changed. In game management, that change is reflected in policies, but in ocean management that change has not been reflected in policy.
Q: In addition to people living on coasts, it seems the technological development of boats, engines, electronics have made offshore fishing much more accessible.
A: It’s much more accessible and it’s much safer. If you go back 50, 100 years, it was much more dangerous to fish offshore. In part because of the innovations, the general public has access to fish in the ocean that it didn’t have then.
Q: I have not seen the movie “Blackfish,” but I know it has to have been an uphill battle for SeaWorld, which your parents founded, to educate the public on what it sees as being truthful. I’m asking about that because I wonder if some of those tactics can be employed on issues of ocean conservation and how the industry, and specific companies, can address them.
A: That really is a good way to sort of crystallize the emotional arguments, not backed by science, but the emotional headline of an extreme environmental community. I’m not involved in SeaWorld. I’m chair of the SeaWorld Research Institute, which is a separate, nonprofit entity that only focuses on science issues, on hatchery efforts, helping stranded animals, understanding how marine mammals communicate with each other, and it’s greatly focused on trying to resolve other ocean issues.
Dad was co-founder of SeaWorld, but I’m not involved with the park itself. But what a shame it was for somebody to come out with a hit piece and call it a documentary, though it was full of false statements and half-truths to make a case that the animals are not taken care of.
When a trainer walks up to a killer whale pool — I’ve watched it — it’s like coming home to your dog and it’s wagging its tail. They’re just so happy to see you. I’m sure the animals at SeaWorld get much better medical care than you or I get. The Navy used to shoot killer whales as strafing practice for aircraft. It was looked at as a big, bad animal — a creature to be feared. Most of the early animals brought into SeaWorld had bullet holes in them from commercial fishermen that shot them because they were looked at as a scary, dangerous animal.
Shamu comes along, and millions of people say, now wait a second, this is a beautiful creature. It’s intelligent, it’s playful, it’s awesome. Shamu did more to educate the public in this country to protect the animals. Most people aren’t going to see a killer whale unless they go to SeaWorld. The orca population is in such better shape today because of SeaWorld and what it taught people. But a slick hit piece can undo that. It wasn’t a documentary. It didn’t show anything at all of all the love shown by trainers, and how long they actually live in captivity, and the science you can learn about them — how they communicate, and what man might be doing to them that will make them sick.
Somebody can come along with an emotional piece with a blanket statement: SeaWorld mistreats the animals, and even if it has no truth to it at all, you can’t defend that. There are great environmental companies and nonprofits. I’m talking about the extreme side that believes no animals should be in captivity anywhere ever.
Bottom line is, I know many of those trainers, and I sat in a group with them not long after this came out, and they just said, “It’s so amazing that anyone would think we’d mistreat these animals. They’re like our children. We don’t make big money doing what we do. We do this because we love what we do. We’re with these animals all day every day. They’re like our family.”
The defense needs a long conversation to present facts. The attack consists only of a very short statement. Facts are not sweet, easy, short, like emotional attacks.
That gets me back to our industry doing a better job explaining to the world who we are and what we do. An extremist can walk into the legislature or marine fishery agency and say fishermen are bad because fish feel pain and fishing is cruel. Maybe they do and maybe they don’t. Science says they don’t. But unless a legislator understands all the good that fishermen do, he can be swayed by this emotional argument. It’s at the heart of the problem the boating and fishing communities have.
Q: How does the industry speaking with a unified voice factor into those efforts?
A: The NMMA and its president, Thom Dammrich, and the ASA and president Mike Nussman for years have been good friends, respected each other, have understood the value the other brought to the efforts and for a long time have cooperated. You’ve got two separate entities, with two separate boards, and two sets of egos, but with the leadership of those two men, they’ve been able to understand the importance and value of cooperating. The fact that they have done that at the level they have has been an awesome thing.
The other thing that’s happening in this space is the CCC, the Center for Coastal Conservation, of which Jeff Angers is president. That group is made up of a number of fishing and boating organizations. It acts as the tip of the spear for boating and fishing industries to make our cases. That entity just in the last year or two under Jeff’s leadership has really come into its own.
Q: I get the biggest kick out of hearing fishermen talk about the latest gadget or doodad they need to catch the next big fish. How do you keep up with the development of new products?
A: If you’re a fisherman, it’s a heck of a lot of fun. A lot of people I know in the fishing industry got into it because we just love to fish. So to keep up with the next, the latest and greatest, yeah, it’s a challenge from a business standpoint, but it’s a challenge in any industry. But it’s a lot of fun to keep up with because so many of us like to fish.
Q: And if fishermen think it will catch them a fish, they’ll drop money on it.
A: Absolutely. Because what do most of us not have enough of? It’s time. So if something can help us be more productive, we’re going to gravitate to it.
This article originally appeared in the August 2015 issue.