Shimano's advocacy

What you’ll read below is a different story than the one I set out to write. I intended a perfunctory piece on bicycle advocacy as practiced by the Big Three component manufacturers, one of which is Shimano. But you can’t spend twenty minutes researching Shimano's bike advocacy without running into the much more captivating story of Shimano’s sport fishing advocacy.

Articles write themselves, if you let them. Phil Morlock, a fascinating character you’ll read about below, is guided by the premise that good policy flows from good science. Likewise, good journalism—like good science and good policy—flows from facts. The Shimano installment of this advocacy trilogy charted its own course, because recent comments and acts by Shimano’s advocacy team compelled this narrative.

Simply by observing its advocacy posture Shimano appears—based on what I’ve witnessed, some of which is presented below—wedded to a staunchly conservative corporate political lean. Shimano, in the person of Morlock, denies that it leans toward, or practices, advocacy that is anti-Democrat, or anti-Obama, or pro conservative. But do they recognize that their acts may lead a reasonable person to hold this impression? Read our interview with Morlock, decide for yourself.

If there is a real or perceived conservative political lean at Shimano, this presents no conflict as regards fishing, because fishing advocacy looks, tastes, and smells a lot like firearm and hunting advocacy. Shimano, its advocacy team, and many other companies in the fishing tackle industry, work fist-in-glove with hunters and gun advocate groups.

However, 80 percent of Shimano’s worldwide revenues come from cycling. My best guess is that cycling looks, politically, like America in the aggregate. If not, cycling probably tacks a little to the left. I hazard this guess because the Slowtwitch readership consists of a geographic and educational demographic suggesting a slight progressive lean. If Slowtwitch readership is reflective of cycling in general, then cycling is, politically, probably a slight bit more blue than red.

Shimano’s advocacy for both activities for which it manufactures requires it to need to appear ecumenical, and perhaps to be ecumenical when it’s appropriate and expedient. Nevertheless, based on what you read below you might see how it appears Shimano’s better ecumenical angels give way to the parochial when the topic turns to fishing.

And this creates a fascinating dichotomy: If your most sympathetic set of congressional ears for sport fishing rights is found among a predominently conservative caucus; and those most likely to vote your way on road cyclist’s rights tend to be progressive legislators; need you be a political chameleon?

This is Shimano’s dilemma. What if Ben & Jerry’s bought Smith & Wesson? The company you own and manage is now called Ben & Wesson, and, you have one legislative advocate on the payroll, lobbying for your progressive ice cream eating and conservative gun owning constituencies. How does your lobbyist lobby?

Shimano has handled advocacy for both groups—sport fishermen and cyclists—without issue until recently. But, Shimano—as expressed in its North American subsidiaries—may have gotten caught up in the charged political atmosphere in which we now live. How that happened I’ll detail below. If you don’t make it all the way to the end, you should also know this: Shimano, in the form of Phil Morlock, might be the most shrewd and adept legislative advocate employed in the cycling world today. His fishing advocacy may offend you, depending on your political sensibilities. But, when it comes to the business of lobbying and legislating: You want him on that wall; you need him on that wall.

Otherwise, bike and fishing advocates alike, as we shall see, might well suggest you pick up a weapon (or a fishing rod, or a frame pump) and stand a post.

Shimano enjoys worldwide sales of about $2 billion, and this will probably grow in 2010. Its fishing division earns it about $400 million in annual revenue, which would, and does, make this a large fishing tackle supplier on the worldwide market. Contrast this, however, to something north of $1.6 billion it earns in revenue from cycling.

For all that, however, this well-capitalized 90-year-old cycling juggernaut has made a lot more news lately in its fishing advocacy, at least in the United States. Indeed, the president of Shimano American, Dave Pfeiffer, and its longtime Director of Environmental Affairs, Morlock, are much more likely to show up in a Google search opining on fishing than on cycling.

I’ve had occasion to interview NOAA (the National Oceanic and Atmospheric Administration) three times during my tenure as Slowtwitch publisher. First was during a jeremiad of mine on Chilean Seabass, and why my local Trader Joes was selling a fish that consumers mindful of fisheries sustainability are routinely urged to avoid. My second intersection with NOAA came during a Slowtwitch feature on Climate Change. It became apparent to me during my research on both these topics that, for all the terrestrial plagues that might attend a Global Warming disaster, depletion of the ocean’s fisheries might wreak, on the human population, even worse havoc.

I’m not alone in thinking this, and that’s why environmental and conservation groups, governmental organizations, scientists and academics and, yes, commercial and sport fisherman and the companies like Shimano that make their fishing tackle, are alarmed as well. Imagine all the political hand-wringing that attends climate change. The pitch surrounding the debate on fisheries management is its equal.

Last week I interviewed a fisheries specialist for an ocean-specific environmental NGO (Non-Governmental Organization). Her husband is a mountain biker. “He just bought a new mountain bike last week,” she told me, speaking about her husband, “And he told the shop not to sell him a bike with any Shimano components.” This, out of principle, because Shimano’s advocacy for fishing so offended him. She wished to remain anonymous for this piece. But, to the degree her husband is a proxy for how fishing advocacy can affect cycling's bottom line, this highlights sensibilities among cyclists Shimano may not recognize exists.

But here’s the thing. This isn’t like Climate Change. No one side owns ninety-plus percent of the science.

“It's a horrible mess.” This is how Tom Lalley described the consensus, or lack thereof, among fisheries scientists. Lalley doesn’t work for the fishing industry. He’s not a sport fisherman. He’s the Oceans Communications Director for the Environmental Defense Fund [EDF], another environmental NGO. “Even among environmentalists there's not a lot of conformity,” he told me. “The PEW Environment Group, Ocean Conservancy, EDF, we generally see eye to eye, but there are differences among us. Good science is a resource everybody wants. There’s not enough of it.”

Accordingly, it’s not hard to fault Shimano for demanding good science before it accedes to plans to close off square mile after square mile of prime sport fishing ground, in order to protect an ocean habitat that may or may not be endangered.

Shimano American’s president, Dave Pfeiffer, and Morlock, have appeared increasingly, and stridently, vocal about fishery policy over the past six months. Shimano published an OpEd last October, entitled, Feds to 60 Million American Anglers: We Don't Need You. This Shimano OpEd—while Pfeiffer’s name is on the article, Morlock wrote it—was widely reprinted on the web. But, the title was quickly changed by many of the reprinters. Gateway Pundit wrote: Obama White House to 60,000,000 Anglers: We Don’t Need You! Freerepublic, Californiapredatorsclub, and many more sites printed the Shimano OpEd with Gateway Pundit’s more provocative title. They are, as of this writing, still published with the “new and improved” title.

Last month Morlock was the subject of an article that dialed the debate’s temp a bit higher. It appeared on ESPN’s website on the 9th of March, 2010. The first line of the article read: “The Obama administration has ended public input for a federal strategy that could prohibit U.S. citizens from fishing some of the nation's oceans, coastal areas, Great Lakes, and even inland waters.”

The result was explosive, with Rush Limbaugh, Glenn Beck, Michelle Malkin, and hundreds of news organizations and blogs riffing on the draconian intent of the Obama administration, NOAA, and its chief, Dr. Jane Lubchenko. “Obama's Latest Assault on Freedom—New regulations Will Ban Sport Fishing,” wrote Gateway Pundit. A hundred more followed that echoed the same theme: Not satisfied with your guns, Obama also wants to take away your fishing pole.

“We have seen no evidence… that recreational fishing and related jobs are receiving any priority," Morlock was quoted in the article as saying, and, “It's all just an excuse to put us off the water.” Morlock’s quotes or attributions comprised more than half the ESPN article.

NOAA’s Dr. Lubchenko was forced to make the rounds, including an appearance on the Rachel Maddow show, disabusing listeners as best she could of the possibility that sport fishermen would lose a right to ply their avocations.

“That was crazy,” said Tom Lalley of the EDF, of the charges he perceived to be made in ESPN’s article. “There is zero percent chance that [a ban on fishing] is going to happen. It’s beyond the pale. It was a huge blunder for them to say something like that.”

The EDF cannot be dismissed as on the crazed fringe of the lefty wingnut tree-hugger organizations. Rather, it’s one of two conservation NGOs spoken of favorably by Dr. Ray Hilborn (U of Washington), a world leading fisheries scientist who’s done work for the American Sportfishing Association, an organization dear to Shimano’s heart. When companies and organizations like Shimano go casting about for science that seems to them level-headed, they typically find a comrade in Hilborn (though Shimano itself doesn’t contract with Hilborn).

When Obama’s fisheries policy has “no stronger advocate” than the EDF (according to Lalley), that’s an endorsement from arguably the most even-handed of the environmental NGOs. The EDF “feels very strongly in sustainable use,” continues Lalley, “and that sport fishing is compatible with conservation, not antagonistic toward it.” That established, the EDF remains, “very supportive of Obama Catch Share policy.”

Catch Share is a term of art for fisheries management not unlike Cap and Trade. Its track record as a management tool is impressive. Still, Catch Share is tool for commercial fishing, and only marginally, if at all, applicable to sport fishing. But Shimano is, or ought to be, very interested in NOAA’s execution of commercial fishery management. The sport fishing sector is a huge stakeholder in the proper management of commercial fisheries.

The EDF is confident in Obama’s ability to correctly manage sport fishing as well. Why? “We have faith in Jane,” answered Lalley, speaking of Jane Lubchenko, Obama’s head of NOAA.

The Congressional Sportsmen’s Foundation [CSF] is a powerful lobby, and its Congressional Sportsmen’s Caucus [CSC] is the largest caucus in Washington, with 53 Senators and 227 House members. While its members are dominated by Republicans, there are democrats on it as well. Many of the CSF’s articles and press releases concern fishing. Half, or more than half, concern hunting, such as these two recent entries: “Hunting Groups Oppose Polar Bear ‘Endangered’ Listing”; “CSF and Idaho Sportsmen’s Caucus Advisory Council Awarded Idaho Wolf Tags.

A March 25th article on the CSF’s website detailed the coverage generated by the ESPN article featuring Morlock’s statements. The article boasted: ”CSF outreach efforts to influence the White House Ocean Policy Task Force were widely recognized by a number of radio, television, digital, and print media outlets as ESPN Outdoors reporter Robert Montgomery referenced CSF releases in his article that opened the floodgates to discussing recreational angling by mainstream media outlets."

The article listed links to “a partial list of media coverage,” and these were links to Fox News; Fox Business Channel; Fox News Special Report; Christian Science Monitor; and National Review. There was no link to the Rachel Maddow interview, or any story appearing either in progressive or mainstream media (depending on how one views the Christian Science Monitor).

Further, the article, a regular featured on CSF’s website called “The Sportsmen’s Voice,” failed to report on ESPN’s own site a comprehensive disavowal of ESPN’s own article the day after its publication, which reads in part:

“Regrettably, we made several errors in the editing and presentation of this installment. Though our series has included numerous news stories on the topic, this was not one of those—it was an opinion piece, and should clearly have been labeled as commentary.

“And while our series overall has examined several sides of the topic, this particular column was not properly balanced and failed to represent contrary points of view. We have reached out to people on every side of the issue and reported their points of view—if they chose to respond—throughout the series, but failed to do so in this specific column.

“We take seriously the tenets of journalism that require we take an unbiased approach, and when we make mistakes in the presentation of a story or a column, it is our responsibility to admit them.”

The original ESPN article appeared on the 9th of March. The ESPN editor’s extraordinary disavowal appeared the next day. Yet, the article in the Congressional Sportsmen’s Foundation website taking credit for the ESPN article and the resulting right-wing brou-ha-ha appeared on the 25th of March.

Notably, there was no mention at all in the CSF’s article, or anywhere on CSF’s website, of ESPN’s repudiation of its own article, nor of the widespread debunking of the article in the mainstream media, such as those in the NY Times or the LA Times.

Morlock, whose quotes made up the bulk of the discredited ESPN piece, sits on the board of directors of the Congressional Sportsmen’s Foundation. He's unapologetic about the article from the foundation on whose board he sits. He blames the Charlotte Fishing Examiner (more below) for causing the brou-ha-ha. About the ESPN article, “Fundamentally, the points in the article are correct. My comments in the article are correct,” says Morlock. It wasn’t “until good fortune, good luck, misfortune, [whereby] the Charlotte newspaper mischaracterized the ESPN article, [that spawned this] resulting media dust-up.”

Morlock hopes to straddle the line. He doesn’t want the Shimano name conflated with Limbaugh, Beck, Malkin, and the right wing blogosphere. He considers it the blogosphere’s fault for misconstruing what Morlock is quoted as saying in the article. But the CSF, on whose board Morlock sits, trumpets the tactical success of the ESPN article. One example, according to the CSF, is this article in the National Review, subtitled: Will Obama’s ocean-policy task force remain in lockstep with radical greens?

Not all the sport fishing community took the anti-Obama bait generated by, or as a result of, the ESPN article.

Jeffrey Weeks of the Charlotte Fishing Examiner wrote:

”As a sportsman who covers fisheries management and politics I do think there are many issues surrounding [NOAA’s] Interagency Ocean Policy Task Force and its eventual recommendations that all fishermen should be aware of and concerned about.

“But to go from concern to suggesting that President Obama is about to ban fishing in America is the most absurd and irresponsible thing I have ever seen a major news outlet publish.

“Most environmental groups have demonstrated the understanding that we must retain our nation's outdoors sports tradition while still protecting our natural resources… Am I going to agree with everything that this task force does? Probably not… However, in no way shape or form is the task force President Obama created about to ban recreational fishing. That is silly. ESPN should be ashamed.”

The tough calculus for Shimano, and Phil Morlock, is how close it can get to the gun and hunting lobby, Fox News, the right wing talk show hosts and bloggers; without inviting the ire of cyclists who are uncomfortable or averse to keeping such close company with groups or people they consider unpalatable. Some in the advocacy community with whom I spoke—agreeing to be quoted only anonymously—were much more comfortable with the tough, nonpartisan sledding (as Shimano has done almost a generation ago) gained through working in concert with all the stakeholders utilizing a resource.

A resource like roads and highways.

And that brings us to cycling. Shimano is a member of two cycling advocacy organizations: IMBA, and Bikes Belong. IMBA—the International Mountain Bike Association—counts Shimano as one of its flagship allies, from its inception, steadfast and true. There is no doubt.

IMBA’s director, Mike Van Abel, trumpets Morlock’s goal: good science should drive policy.

“Shimano fills a unique space in the bike industry,” said Van Abel. “They do have a product line for fishing. From this comes a great depth of knowledge and understanding of the conservation world. IMBA's segment—bicycle on the national landscape—those government agencies managing those are the same as those Shimano deals with managing fishing. There is no company like that in the bike industry.”

In a way, Shimano’s legislative battles, and its dealings with governmental organizations, are similar fish-to-bike. At least to mountain bike. In dealing with the Department of Commerce, Morlock has to convince NOAA that closing habitats off to fishing—through a process of declaring vast tracts known as “Marine Protected Areas” (MPAs)—is often a knee-jerk reaction to a problem that might not be based on sound science. The way sport fishing is managed and controlled in California is highly criticized by many (though not all) sport fishers; some well regarded scientists; and even a fishery scientist to whom I spoke at NOAA.

Morlock fights the battle of what noted fishery scientist Dr. Ray Hilborn calls “The Litany,” which might be roughly described as the narrative conservationists have sold to the politicians, and which the politicians have accepted, both as truth, and as immutable policy. Van Abel deals with his own version of The Litany: “We continue to deal with the myth that mountain biking results in more impact on trails and wildlife than other.”

Morlock, once again on dry ground after toweling himself off from an ocean fisheries battle with Greenpeace and World Wildlife Fund, runs, at full gallop, wearing the breastplate of science, wielding the sword of truth, toward the Bureau of Land Management.

And, about bikes and trails, he’s probably right. He has the science to back his advocacy for MTB trails, and he went out, himself, and participated in generating it (see our interview with Morlock for more on this).

Tim Blumenthal is the CEO of Bikes Belong, maybe the premier bike advocacy organization in America. Blumenthal also credits Shimano for legislative expertise, and it’s, “because of the work that they do in fishing,” according to Blumenthal. “They're pretty dialed into public land issues, they’ve been a big supporter of CSC (Congressional Sportsmen’s Caucus), and that influences how they think about bike advocacy and advocacy support.”

Blumenthal used to run the organization now headed by Van Abel. “They focused on MTB historically,” recalls Blumenthal, “and, that was very appreciated. I ran IMBA for 11 years, they were one of the first bike product companies to get involved. They focused more historically in MTB. It's helped MTB advocacy.”

Advocacy is sometimes expressed as a time when rivals momentarily cease their efforts to take market share from each other. Rather than trying to take a bigger slice of the pie, advocacy means we all join as allies to make the pie bigger. Blumenthal tells a story that illustrates that Shimano does understand this ethic.

“Kozo Shimano [former president of Shimano American] took me over to Valentino Campagnolo,” Blumenthal remembers. “Look,” the Shimano president said to the head of his largest rival, “The work this organization, Bikes Belong, is doing is really good. You should get involved.”

It’s easy to have sympathy for Shimano. The analogy of the progressive ice cream company buying the firearms maker—Ben & Wesson—is not only roughly apt, it’s made yet the tougher because Shimano is a public company. Shimano must not only advocate for sport fisherman, and for cyclists, it must advocate for its shareholders. That’s a lot of parties for whom it must shoulder a responsibility.

Still, in choosing to pick—or to appear to pick—a fight with the Obama administration on behalf of sport fishermen, might the customers representing 80 percent of Shimano’s revenue take umbrage? Furthermore, can Shimano’s fish advocacy be at cross purposes with cycling’s apparently positive relationship with the Obama executive?

Two week’s ago President Obama’s Secretary of Transportation, Ray LaHood, stood in front of a group of cycling advocates and stated unequivocally that cyclists are now, under the Obama administration, equal stakeholders with vehicles on America’s roadways. Blumenthal of Bikes Belong was in the room shaking LaHood’s hand just after LaHood made that statement. Most of cycling advocacy’s elite was in the room that day. “What a euphoric moment for bicycling!” Blumenthal said. It was electric.

LaHood’s statement drew immediate fire, though, from conservative bloggers and pundits. And, from conservative politicians. Ohio’s Steven LaTourette, Iowa’s Tom Latham, Missouri’s Kit Bond—all members of the Congressional Sportsmen's Caucus—criticized LaHood’s comments directly and/or have recently come out against Obama’s bicycle-friendly, quality of life concept of “liveability.”

In response to LaHood’s comments, Thetruthaboutcars immediately quoted the factoid: “America’s transportation policy has existed solely to serve cars since time immemorial.” In point of fact, the Good Roads Movement in the latter part of the 19th Century gave eventual rise to what is now America’s system of roadway arteries. The “father” of this movement wrote in his autobiography: "I often hear now-a-days, the automobile instigated good roads; that the automobile is the parent of good roads. Well, the truth is, the bicycle is the father of the good roads movement in this country."

According to Doug Hecock, a Department of Transportation spokesperson, cyclists were the activists and activist funders that led to America’s current system of roadways. But in cycling, as in fishing, the political game is afoot. Bicycle haters (or dislikers) will spread their version of the “litany” as fact. Cyclists will counter. Shimano will advocate.

Forty years ago, when Shimano became a manufacturer both of fishing and cycling gear, it could not have foreknown the political climate that often places road cyclists and fishermen on at least moderately different ends of the political spectrum. Nevertheless, here Shimano is.