I wrote this article for the September 2012 issue of Pacific Fishing. Pick it up at newsstands, or if you’re not in a fishing community on the Pacific Coast of the the US, check it out here.
For decades there has been no footwear more ubiquitous to commercial fishing in the North Pacific than Xtratuf boots. From San Diego to the Bering Sea, fishermen have relied on their durability, comfort, and support as a consistent tool for the trade. Xtratuf has built a near monopoly with their well-crafted, fully waterproof uppers and slip-resistant soles, giving them a steady, inelastic demand. In my short four years commercial fishing, I have never seen anyone wear anything but Xtratufs.
At the start of this year’s Southeast Alaska seine season, I picked up a new pair after my old pair succumbed to the grind of near daily use fishing for salmon and Dungies for a year and a half. I noticed something was a little different, the boots lacked the classic oily residue, and the logo was without the “Made in USA” and red, white, and blue patriotic banner.
At the end of 2011, Honeywell—the giant conglomerate that purchased the Xtratuf brand in 2008—closed its plant in Rock Island, Ill., where Xtratufs have been made since the 1970s, and moved production to an existing Honeywell facility in China. In the process, 250 to 300 people lost their jobs, as David Pauley, mayor of Rock Island, told Alaska’s KACW.
Honeywell decided to move production because the Rock Island factory was no longer efficient and could not keep up with production demands, according to an official statement from the company.
Beyond abandoning American workers, the move in and of itself wouldn’t necessarily change things. One would assume a neoprene boot triple dipped in rubber would be the same whether produced in the United States or China, but this seems not to be the case.
After about a week, the band that adheres uppers to the sole on one of my boots started to peel; after three weeks, the band began to significantly come off to the point where I could see a two-inch-long gap between the sole and the uppers. The same thing happened to my crewmate, who had recently purchased a pair. While anecdotal evidence isn’t enough to condemn a product as inferior, further investigation shows that Xtratuf’s shoddy craftsmanship is widespread.
“The quality went to crap,” said Dan Voelz, the manager of Murray Pacific in Ketchikan. “Commercial fishermen are a unique breed. When they go out, they’re out for a long time. They need equipment that they know they can depend on, and these don’t cut it.”
That’s quite the statement, especially coming from someone who makes money selling the product.
At Murray Pacific, the number of returns for Xtratuf products has increased markedly. “In just a few months this year, we’ve had more returns than all of last year,” Voelz added.
Murray Pacific isn’t alone in retailer disappointed with Xtratufs.
“The quality is definitely not there,” said Jodi Ficele, footwear manager at Tongass Trading Co. in Ketchikan. “We have a lot of frustrated customers and a lot more returns.”
The problem lies not in a change in materials, but in workmanship, said Steve Haynes, the Anchorage-based sales representative for Xtratufs. “These boots are very labor intensive,” Haynes said. “There’s almost no automation in the construction of Xtratufs.” He went on to say that there was a steep leaning curve for workers in China, who didn’t apply adequate amounts of adhesive, but that the problems have been addressed and corrected this spring.
“I’ve been doing a lot of damage control the past month,” he said. “We’re doing everything we can do short of a recall.”
That doesn’t seem to do much about the thousands of shoddy boots already purchased and the remaining stocks on retailers’ shelves. I, for one, bought my defective boots in Seattle before coming up to Alaska, and I am unable to return them. If I were to buy a new pair, I don’t have much faith that I wouldn’t get stuck with boots from the first runs of Chinese production. At this point, I don’t think a recall would be asking too much. To add insult to injury, the company had not passed on its reduced labor costs to consumers. In fact, the cost per pair of boots has actually increased by a few dollars since last year, noted Voelz.
“Buy American” is hardly a thought when it comes to gear worn by commercial fishermen in the U.S. Grundéns is a Swedishcompany, with most of its rain gear manufactured in Portugal. Guy Cotton is French and produced in France. Atlas gloves are made in Malaysia. All the same, it is sad to see American production end, and it’s frustrating to see such a decrease in quality, even if it is temporary.
“People keep asking me for a replacement,” said Voelz. “And I don’t think it will take long for one to hit the market.”
He just might be on to something. Bogs, a footwear manufacturer specializing in waterproof boots, will release the Highliner Pro in early 2013 to give Xtratuf greater competition in the commercial fishing market, said a spokesperson for the company.
Xtratuf has also announced the release of Xtratuf II, a new boot that adds the warmth and comfort of Muck Boots, also a subsidiary of Honeywell, with the durability and oil-chemical resistance of the now-renamed Xtratuf Legacy.
Beyond the fact that Xtratuf is engrained in the cultural identity of fishing communities—being spotted with dresses, at weddings, and worn in the Alaskan State Capital—competitors have yet to come up with a product that works as good as Xtratuf. Now that Xtratuf finds itself with many frustrated former loyal customers, Bogs stands a good chance to erode Xtratuf’s market dominance if their product can meet the exacting demands of commercial fishermen.