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Five Questions with Matt Shilling

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Learn more about Kevin Sullivan.
Kevin Sullivan
Senior Advisor
George W. Bush Presidential Center

Matt Shilling’s career has taken him from Washington, D.C. to helping advance global shark research and education in some of the most remote places on earth. In 2014, Shilling co-founded the nonprofit, Indifly to help Indigenous communities own and operate fly fishing ecotourism businesses.

In what is a recurring theme, this month we hear from another Bush-Cheney alum who is doing fascinating work in the name of service.  Matt Shilling’s career has taken him from Washington, D.C. to helping advance global shark research and education in some of the most remote places on earth.  In 2014, Shilling co-founded the nonprofit, Indifly to help Indigenous communities own and operate fly fishing ecotourism businesses. 

Here Matt details some of his excellent adventures around the world (which include a very large, prehistoric, obligate air-breathing monster) and the lessons he learned from President Bush, that serve him today, including trusting in those you have empowered to make decisions and have their back.  Matt, his wife Abbey, and their two sons live in Saint Paul, Minnesota.

Q:  Can you tell us about the mission of Indifly?

Indifly empowers Indigenous communities to protect the remaining pristine places in the world. Fun fact – Indigenous Peoples are custodians of 80 percent of the world’s remaining biodiversity. We enable Indigenous communities to own and operate fly fishing ecotourism businesses. These businesses provide sustainable livelihoods, generate community-wide economic benefits, and create incentives for the protection of Indigenous homelands. Anyone who would like to support our work can do so at indifly.org.

Q:  How was the idea born to use fly fishing as a driver for entrepreneurship and economic growth in Indigenous communities and how did you get involved?

Indifly was formed out of a project to help a village deep in the heart of the Amazon basin. After learning of Rewa, Guyana, whose people risked everything for conservation but were not finding success, a sunglass brand pulled together a small team to go offer assistance. I have always been driven by service so when asked, I jumped at the opportunity. We quickly fell in love with the community and their passion to protect their homeland. The community of about 300 villagers had made the hard decision not to harvest resources for profit like many of their “neighbors,” but they needed a source of income. The community transitioned from a barter economy long ago. Villagers of Rewa traveled long distances to work in mining camps for very little money.  Neighboring villages sold off timber and mineral rights and poached birds to extinction for the global pet trade. The people of Rewa knew there had to be an alternative option to survive and demonstrated incredible leadership by building a small ecolodge. Their target market at the time was primarily bird watchers (I often say being in the region is like being in a Disney movie – Guyana is said to have 900-plus species of birds, 225 species of mammals, 880 species of reptiles and more than 6,500 species of plants and trees). The problem was no one came.

Rewa and the surrounding water has a special fish called the arapaima, which is a very large, prehistoric, obligate air-breathing monster. We knew a growing market of adventurous anglers who love to immerse themselves in different cultures existed, but first we needed to figure out how to catch an arapaima on the fly and ensure the fishery was sustainable enough to allow for additional pressure from visitors. It took some time, but we figured out how to get arapaima to eat a fly and developed a model which focuses on three pillars of sustainability – cultural, economic, and environmental. 

The Rewa project and its success created a natural roadmap to expand the model to other areas of need. This spawned an organization (Indifly) with a vision of sustainable local economies that empower communities to conserve natural resources and a world in which Indigenous peoples are empowered and inspired by business ownership and environmental stewardship. Along with two other members of the team we founded Indifly in 2014. 

I often get asked why we use fly fishing as a tool to transform livelihoods and protect valued environments. Here are a few reasons:

  • It’s familiar. Many of the communities in which we operate already know how to fish for sustenance. We expand on the expert local knowledge and introduce a new tool which drives tourism to their homelands. Of course, a great deal of local entertainment is derived from this introduction to fly fishing. Generally, community leaders think we are a bit crazy trying to catch what is often eaten locally in the least effective way possible – and then we have the audacity to release it. 

  • It’s sustainable. All Indifly projects are rooted in science and strictly catch-and-release. This practice instills a deep conservation ethic from the beginning which results in not only an improved experience for visiting anglers, but a mindset of conservation for the future. 

  • And last, but certainly not least, fly fishing can be lucrative. Done right, ecotourism operations can drastically improve a community’s sustainable bottom line. Our model results in the creation of sustainable livelihoods, improved heath, food security, and the ability for communities to stay together (rather than leaving the village to find work). 

There are many spectacular places to fish around the world. One of the many things that sets Indifly projects apart from others is the ability to immerse in the local culture. The stories adventurers tend to share with their friends and family have less emphasis on the size or number of fish caught, but rather revolve around the amazing locals they met, the unique culture they were introduced to, and the impact they were able to make in a community simply by doing what they love. This is one of the reasons we place a significant emphasis on cultural sustainability in our projects. 

Q:  Can you share a success story or two?

One of the things that makes Indifly unique is we do not take an ownership stake in projects. Indifly projects are 100 percent Indigenous-owned. Our success is the success of the communities we serve. 

Rewa has seen the most success across our pillars of sustainability.The ecolodge is able to employ 100 percent of the labor force. While Rewa clearly had a conservation mindset before we arrived, it is on a whole different level now. There was a period of two years where Guyana experienced abnormally short wet seasons (typically the water will rise and fall 40 feet between wet and dry seasons). Arapaima, now seen as vital to livelihoods, were becoming trapped in jungle ponds and therefore open to predation. The villagers took it upon themselves to rescue these fish by filling hand dug canoes with water, risking injury by trapping 250-400 pound fish, placing them in the heavy canoe and dragging them miles through the jungle to safely release them back into the river. Keep in mind, big fish feed a lot of mouths. Of course there is economic success as well. Prior to the fishing program, income for the entire village was roughly $1,000 USD. Now, over the course of 8 weeks, the ecolodge will generate revenues well into the six figures and the community is able to invest profits into things like clean water supplies, solar power, satellite internet, improved healthcare, and education.

Another example is a project on a small atoll in French Polynesia. Anaa is a postcard picturesque atoll a short flight from Tahiti with a population of roughly 500 (down from 5,000). Their sole economic driver revolves around the coconut tree – specifically copra which is a harvested coconut cut in half and dried in the sun. The French government provides a small subsidy for the harvest of copra which is exported and processed into coconut oil. As you can imagine, there are only so many coconut trees on an atoll.  When we first visited Anaa we fell in love with the people and fishery. Their favorite fish to eat, bonefish, was the target species for visiting anglers. We needed to understand the current state of the fishery so we sent a scientist to live on the atoll for three years to collect data. The data showed a fishery in collapse. The issue quickly turned from how can we create livelihoods through ecotourism to how can we ensure a culturally significant practice can remain for generations to come. We started educating youth on the atoll about the environment and specifically what was happening to bonefish populations. These kids quickly turned into true conservation heroes. They appealed to the government for the creation of a Marine Educational Area to protect bonefish aggregation sites. Then they went door-to-door in the community to advocate for a Rahui (a polynesian ritual and moratorium on harvest) during the spawning months. Rahuis are extremely significant in the polynesian culture and one had not been enacted on Anaa in hundreds of years, but these kids got it done! The Rahui was enacted during the three month spawning season and has been in place for two of five years. To date, the data has improved from a spawning potential ratio of 9 percent to 19 percent. As an aside, each child of Anaa leaves his/her family to attend school on a different island at age 11, ends up in Tahiti for what we would call high-school, and never returns to Anaa due to the lack of jobs – another issue we are working to solve.

We are also excited about our first domestic project on the Wind River Indian Reservation in Wyoming. The reservation encompasses 2.3 million acres and is rich in native culture, history, and unlimited outdoor recreation opportunity. Enrolled members of the Eastern Shoshone and Northern Arapaho Tribes on the reservation face many challenges to daily life. Indifly assessed the viability of a project on the reservation. The Wind River Inter-Tribal Council unanimously approved an Indifly project to empower the community and create sustainable livelihoods. Our plan focuses on the utilization of Wind River’s amazing resources to create much needed jobs. Jobs created designed to:

  • Promote increased youth awareness of the community’s outdoor environment.
  • Incorporate the value of culture as taught by Shoshone and Arapaho elders.
  • Provide sustainable opportunities for youth to stay on the reservation.
  • Develop strong conservation ethics.
  • Conserve Wind River’s largest asset – its natural resources. 
  • Promote healthy opportunities for youth to avoid drug and alcohol use.
  • Raise awareness of the reservation as an outdoor destination.

While this project is in its infancy, the need to deploy the Indifly model exists right here in America and we are fortunate to have the opportunity to make an impact at home. 

Q:  What is the state of conservation in America today? Where have we made progress and what is our most urgent need?

America has long been a global leader in conserving resources. America was the first country to establish a national park and our public lands are a point of national pride. Last year Congress passed the Great American Outdoors Act, which fully and permanently funds the Land and Water Conservation Fund at $900 million/year, and allocates billions of dollars to the National Park Service (which has a $12 billion dollar maintenance backlog) and other land management agencies. It is widely considered the single most important conservation legislation in a generation.  That’s great progress from where we were – which was a 50 percent decrease in funding for conservation as a percentage of the federal budget over the past 40 years. 

Conservation and outdoor recreation are synonymous. Those who participate in the $788 billion outdoor recreation economy drive spending in local communities across the nation and generate 5.2 million jobs. They also help fund conservation. State fish and wildlife agencies play a vital role in conservation and under our model in the United States the federal government collects excise taxes on equipment and fuel and distributes these funds (outdoor enthusiasts generated almost $1 billion in 2019) to state fish and wildlife agencies providing critical funding. This brings me to the urgent need. Participation. According to the Outdoor Industry Association, Americans went on one billion fewer outdoor outings in 2018 than they did in 2008 and just under half the population does not participate in outdoor recreation at all. Staggering. What happens to conservation if this trend line continues? One cannot spark a passion for the outdoors, and in turn for the conservation of our amazing resources, if they do not participate or are not introduced to outdoor recreation. Not to mention, what happens to our funding model? The need has never been greater to steer youth away from reliance on technology and into the outdoors. The future of conservation in the United States depends on it. 

Q:  Do you have a favorite moment or story from your time in the Administration and is there a leadership lesson you learned from President Bush that serves you in your work today?

There are SO many favorite moments! Like others who have participated in “Five Questions With…”, I find it difficult to narrow it down to one. Each day I felt an immense sense of honor just to be able to walk into the building or through the gates and play a small part. USDA Prime softball, helping coach t-ball on the south lawn, the CAT team and the turkeys about to be pardoned (story for another day), Law of the Sea outreach, the first White House Conference on North American Wildlife Policy in 100 years, not one but two Farm Bill vetoes, immigration reform, confirmations and kitchen cabinet meetings, and a call to talk about striped bass and red drum fish late one night are just a few of my many favorite moments. Oh, and the countless number of White House events I was able to witness. That’s a lot more than “a favorite moment or story”, but it is a really hard question to answer! I’m also aware all of these lack context…That said, the common thread in all of my favorite moments are the people I was able to serve beside and learn from. The bonds created with colleagues, mentors, and bosses are lifelong. 

I will forever be grateful for the opportunity to serve President Bush, from whom I learned many valuable leadership lessons I use today. One that sticks with me daily is the decision-making process in the Administration. A couple of things here, not all decisions need to reach your desk – trust in those you have empowered to make decisions and have their back. When you are faced with making a decision, listen to all opinions (especially from those smarter than you – which in my case is most everyone), thoughtfully consider all options, make a decision and stand by it. I was also always amazed by the President’s ability to go from a tense situation room to the east room for a photo opportunity and seamlessly transition. No matter what else is going on, the people in front of you are often the most important thing you should be thinking about in that moment. The President’s empathy, kindness, and humor were always bright spots. One more…make time to read books. If the leader of the free world can find time to read, so can you.