Petersburg Pilot -

Bringing the pink shrimp back to Petersburg

Entrepreneur contest recognizes local fishery's idea to bring back shrimpers

 

Eric LeDuc / Petersburg Pilot

Seth Scrimsher stands at the docks of Tonka Seafoods, Inc.

Petersburg once was host to sound enterprise of commercial shrimp fisheries and processing plants, drawing in hundreds of thousands - even millions of pounds of shrimp, ranging from the tiny pink crustaceans commonly found gracing salads to their larger brethren that are fried, grilled, battered and steamed in cuisine across the world.

Most of that ended in 2005, after Trident Seafoods acquired the local venture, Norquest Seafoods, once Alaskan Glacier Seafoods, and shut down its last shrimp processing line in favor of higher volume, easier to process catches of salmon and other lucrative lines, facing dwindling catches and escalating costs.

In the near decade that has passed, pink shrimp, once touted as the town's saviors through the 1928 depression and later fires at processing plants, became passing mention in conversation as residents recalled shelling catches after high school.

That legacy is something Tonka Seafoods, Inc., wants to bring back to the borough, eyeing a market for the replenished resource in a smaller volume than their corporate neighbors. The idea alone was enough to catch the attention of Path to Prosperity, an annual entrepreneurial contest that Seth Scrimsher, Chief Financial Officer for the business, entered earlier this year.

Recently recognized as one of twelve finalists in the competition, Scrimsher has just returned from a four-day "boot camp" for entrepreneurs, where he began putting the finishing touches on the concept for a formal business plan he hopes will land some lenders or investors to bring pink shrimp processing back.

The business plan, coming from an established business, rather than individual innovators as is the norm, had greatly impressed judges, said P2P Administrator Alana Peterson.

"There is a great niche market and he's approaching it from a sustainable standpoint," she said, looking back on the booms and lulls of southeastern Alaskan shrimp fishing. "It's such a tough industry, fisheries in general, that whenever you can find a good niche product that doesn't take too much extra to get, that's always a plus and where I think small producers need to look now. I think it's a great idea, and Tonka Seafoods is a strong business that certainly can use the support in developing a new business."

Should the idea take off like they're hoping, Scrimsher said he anticipates moderate, but profitable margins that fall just shy of bigger business' budgets.

"The (shrimp catch) quota is four to five million pounds, but it's spread out over a calendar year," he explained. "What happened was, that four to five million quota is too small. (Bigger plants) don't want to be open in the fall, winter and spring. It doesn't meet their business model, but it does meet ours."

Scrimsher said Tonka already operates 11 months out of the year and has adequate weatherizing to withstand winter trials - such as frozen pipes on the processing lines - that plague other seasonal plants, giving the company an early leg up on expanding their operation.

"It would be business opportunities for five to six shrimp fishermen and their crews," he said, estimating the early numbers on the installation of one processing plant. That number could potentially double, should the venture prove profitable enough to merit a second plant, as well as growing the number of employees, about 30, working on the catch at Tonka's docks, peeling, cooking and packaging. "It's a value-added job, so you can pay a little extra as you're getting a little extra for the product."

Scrimsher's plans seem sound, spoken with assurance drawn from decades of shrimp catch documentation, expert cost analyses, market testing and firsthand knowledge, but there remains one major stumbling block to getting the idea shipped out, he said - the prohibitive startup costs of the venture. Tonka Seafoods is looking at an investment of upwards of $1 million, likely paid back over a 10-year loan, to simply get the equipment necessary to process up to 15,000 pounds of shrimp per day. That's part of what drove him to the P2P contest, as Scrimsher saw, and pursued, opportunities to get publicity and draw the interest of investors or lenders that might otherwise be reluctant to venture out into abandoned waters.

"That up-front cost is tremendous," he said, adding that the greatest reward the company could hope to obtain out of the contest is the recognition and visibility - though $40,000 in seed money for their project is nothing to sneeze at, the P2P contest's grand prize remains a drop in a $1 million bucket. Publicizing and generating investor energy was one of his main focuses during talks and strategizing with the experts brought in by P2P, leaving Scrimsher more confident that the venture will succeed, even if Tonka isn't announced as a winner in January or February.

"There's such a demand for shrimp right now that we might be able to ease into it, freezing in the round or concentrating on the larger shrimp, getting those out cooked and fresh and utilizing the smaller pinks in other markets," he said. "Even if we don't get financing for the entire project, we might be able to ease into it. Pink shrimp is a large part of the reason Petersburg is even in existence. It's still really well known in the Pacific Northwest. It's pretty famous, still, in the fish-buying circles."

Path to Prosperity was created by the Nature Conservancy and Haa Aanì Community Development Fund to "build and strengthen a diverse regional economy," according to its website, p2pweb.org.

From the remaining 12 finalists, two will be chosen by P2P judges to receive upwards of $40,000 in seed funding, as well as technical and consulting services, which will be announced in January. A third winner, to be determined in February by popular choice, will receive the same. Votes may be cast in February at P2P's website.

 

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