The Sunshine Economy: Commerce And Conservation With Guy Harvey

Dec 4, 2018

Guy Harvey’s art is more often worn then hung.

His watercolors and pen and ink drawings, of marlins, mako sharks and mahi, are on t-shirts, hats and even dog collars. He has been licensing his artwork to put on clothes since the late 1980s.

It is an expanding portfolio with big ambitions. In 2019 he will launch his biggest clothing licensing yet, with Perry Ellis International merchandising. Based in Doral, it distributes more than 20 different licensed brands -- like Penguin, Jantzen and its namesake. If successful, the deal would take Harvey's brand of marine art and coastal living merchandise beyond the Caribbean, and generate more money for his philanthropy.

Fishing and business have some things in common. Both take persistence and patience. Both take skill, and even some luck. And they demand a sense of optimism.

Harvey is optimistic about the business he has built from his marine life art. 

"Business has been great," he says. "Business has been great for 32 years."

He has expanded to include his art with branches of the military, colleges and universities and big sporting events, like NASCAR races. That business has generated hundreds of thousands of dollars for his non-profit interests focused on marine research.

"The art is the basic building block for everything."

In a wide-ranging interview, Harvey spoke to WLRN about his business and the environmental efforts it helps fund.


Harvey says he has a five year deal with Perry Ellis International with an option for another five years to put his art and signature on shirts, fishing and resort clothes.

This gear represents the primary business for Harvey’s art, but he’s expanding into accessories and wants to get his art on other products like home furnishings.

"The art would do very well on a variety of license items, but apparel will always be the biggest one," he said.

Harvey wouldn't discuss financial details of the licensing deal, nor for his company, though he expects the new licensing agreement will help it grow more than 10 percent a year.

He said some of the manmade fabrics have become very desirable, "especially in the younger generations."

Guy Harvey began putting his marine art onto t-shirts in 1986. In 2019, he begins a new licensing deal with the Doral-based Perry Ellis International.
Credit courtesy: George Schellenger

Harvey looks for partners with significant distribution systems in place and that can deliver on customer service and quality.

"Everybody thinks that 'I can get Guy Harvey on my product and we're going to make millions,'" he said. "It doesn't happen."

While Harvey and clothes with his art may be well-known in warm water fishing locations, he sees the interior of the country -- places more than 500 miles from the sea -- as a big opportunity. But that doesn't mean he will be changing the fish he paints.

"People who fish aspire to catch a blue marlin. They'd rather wear a blue marlin even if they live in Minnesota and fish for walleye than have a walleye or a musky on their back," he said.


Harvey puts his name on all his art. And the success of putting that art on t-shirts has helped fuel the funds for him to put his name on marine research endeavors. Since partnering with Nova Southeastern in 1999 for the Guy Harvey Research Institute and starting his own foundation a decade ago, he has steered hundreds of thousands of dollars from the sale of his t-shirt art into marine science.

"Oceanic research work is very expensive," he said. "You're dealing with animals that are highly migratory. They live out in the open ocean. They're hard to access."

The research includes several ongoing projects. They tag and track mako sharks. Fourteen years ago, an international group of environmental scientists said the species was vulnerable to extinction. Same for the oceanic whitetip shark -- another species Harvey’s t-shirt art money helps track. In early 2018, the National Oceanic and Atmospheric Administration Fisheries officially designated the whitetip as threatened under the Endangered Species Act. The federal government estimates the population of the shark has fallen 90 percent in the Gulf of Mexico.

Nova Southeastern and the research institute have put its nine marine wildlife tracking projects online.

"Without data about the species that you're trying to protect you can't really effectively manage a resource. You're just guessing. So the first part of the whole process is to gather data," he said.

Guy Harvey says he hasn't changed his artist process as the business of putting his marine art on clothing and other items has grown.
Credit courtesy: George Schellenger

The market demand for sharks, especially shark fins, has led to a drop in some populations. The research institute has used DNA testing to find that most of the dried shark fins and gills collected at markets in Canada, China and Sri Lanka were from species banned from international trade because of their low populations.

Harvey’s research also has surveyed Nassau Groupers, a fish that is considered critically engaged by the International Union for Conservation of Nature.

"The value of nature to the socio-economic well-being of just about anywhere is now being highlighted tremendously," he said.

Harvey doesn’t mind putting a price on conservation. He thinks it helps, especially for policymakers making decisions balancing protections of the natural world with marketplace profit motives. In Grand Cayman, where he lives, Harvey's research estimates each stingray at the island's famed Stingray City is worth $500,000 of hospitality spending per year.

He opposes efforts to build a cruise ship dock on the island over concerns of attracting too many visitors. Yet he has partnered with Norwegian Cruise Line. One of its ships features a Guy Harvey painting across its hull, an onboard video channel and a week-long conversation cruise featuring the artist himself.

"It was a way to have a moving billboard traveling the Caribbean, extolling the aesthetic beauty of these animals, but also telling a little bit about the life history."