Petersburg Pilot -

Tonka brings shrimp back to Petersburg Local company purchased 250,000 pounds over the winter

 

Seth Scrimsher / Submitted Photo

The crew of the Mandi J, a vessel out of Wrangell, deliver an 11,000-pound load of Northern Pink Shrimp to Tonka Seafoods last week.

Tonka Seafoods, Inc., announced last year that it was working to bring shrimp fisheries and processing back to Petersburg after a nearly decade-long absence. Well, it's delivered.

The fishery is closed for March and April, but Chief Financial Officer Seth Scrimsher said they purchased 250,000 pounds of pink shrimp from fisherman at a price of 40 cents per pound over the winter.

A customer contacted Tonka and requested the shrimp after spotting the seafood company as one of 12 finalists for the Path to Prosperity (P2P) contest.

"We formally withdrew, or stopped participating, because we actually found a customer because of our involvement in that program. They heard about what we were doing so they called us and were willing to buy the shrimp. So we felt it wouldn't be fair to the other participants who were still trying to find customers and develop their program if we were potentially one of the winners of the final award," Scrimsher said. "Because that was kind of the end goal of that whole program was to advance to where you had actually lined up customers and were selling."

The P2P contest was created by the Haa Aani Community Development Fund, Inc., and the Nature Conservancy to help launch growth companies "that will increase local employment, have a positive social and economic impact on their communities, promote sustainable use of local resources and increase entrepreneurial know-how and business leadership in southeast Alaska," according to P2P's website, p2pweb.org.

The winning entrepreneurs received upwards of $40,000 in seed funding to assist in the development of their business concept.

The money for Tonka's start-up costs - the purchase of a new machine and a few belts for under $50,000 - was taken from the company's smoking operations, Scrimsher said.

He added that they used existing freezers to freeze the shrimp in blocks.

The shrimp still haven't made it to the customer with negotiations for new longshoreman labor agreements on the west coast, but once they do, the buyer will run it through their cookers and peelers. Then, if it works for the customer's program, Scrimsher said Tonka will buy as much shrimp as it can for the rest of year.

"There is a lot of interest in this cold water pink shrimp right now, especially worldwide," he noted.

Many fisheries, such as those off of Canada, have seen their quotas "tucked dramatically," he added, which is how Tonka came upon its customer, who wanted more shrimp to fill their customers' needs.

"We feel it's a viable fishery," Scrimsher said. "The jobs that it would create, opportunities for the fisherman, as well as the opportunity for our own company."

The quota is only 5 million pounds spread throughout the year, so the larger plants don't want to stay open year round to do it. It wouldn't be financially wise for them, Scrimsher said.

"So it's kind of the perfect size fishery for a small company like ourselves, who is willing to be open all year round and has employees looking for year round, long-term employment," he added.

There's been interest from fishermen right here in Petersburg and in Wrangell. Scrimsher said they had one from both areas catching the shrimp for Tonka over the winter.

If the company continues shrimp processing, it'll be looking to expand to four or five fishermen, he added.

Then, when Tonka's guys are busy with salmon season, the company will bring in 18 seasonal positions to run the shrimp line.

Scrimsher has been wanting to process shrimp since Trident acquired Norquest Seafoods and decided to focus on the more profitable fisheries, such as halibut, in 2005.

"It's pretty exciting," he said. "We're still nervous about it. Nothing is 100 percent yet, but it's pretty close right now. So it is pretty exciting and nerve wracking at the same time."

The end goal, he added, is for Tonka to own its own cookers and peelers to value-add the product. But that'll take years and be expensive - about $1 million.

He noted Tonka will be saving a little of its profits each year to put toward that goal.

 

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