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Big boom for tiny shrimp in Petersburg

  • Author: Sean Doogan
  • Updated: September 28, 2016
  • Published August 11, 2015

A shortage of salad shrimp caused by crashing Atlantic Ocean stocks has small fish processor Tonka Seafoods trying to restart a fishery that was once a mainstay in the Southeast Alaska town of Petersburg.

Salad shrimp are small, cold-water shellfish. Also called pink shrimp, about 125 fit in a 1-pound package. While Americans prefer larger, warm-water varieties, salad shrimp are extremely popular in Iceland, Norway and Sweden.

But warming North Atlantic waters have depleted European stocks and shut down several fisheries on the East Coasts of Canada and the United States. In Europe, prices have jumped from $5 per pound in 2005 to $15 per pound.

Alaska is home to one of the most prized species of salad shrimp, Pandalus borealis. In Petersburg, Tonka Seafoods has just three boats permitted for salad shrimp fishing, but is looking for more as demand for the Alaska species soars.

"We have a different species than you get in other parts of the Pacific Northwest." Tonka Seafoods President Wendell Gilbert said. "And these are what they are looking for in Iceland, because this is exactly the same shrimp they have on the East Coast and in their area."

The shrimp are quick-frozen, shells and all, before they're shipped. Gilbert said he isn't yet certain the fishery can sustain the number of boats needed to make a $1.2 million peeling plant economical.

"We just don't know how many shrimp are out there (around Petersburg)," Gilbert said.

Another concern is the warming waters of the northern Pacific Ocean -- the same dynamic that has caused salad shrimp declines in the north Atlantic. Gilbert said a salad shrimp crash has already happened in Alaska.

"There used to be shrimp everywhere in Alaska," Gilbert said. "There was big shrimp fishery in Kodiak and Bristol Bay and Prince William Sound. In the late '70s, water temperatures warmed and the shrimp fishery dwindled away and never fully recovered -- the only exception to that is the Southeast Alaska shrimp fishing."

Tonka Seafoods has already shipped 336 tons of shrimp to Iceland so far this year. But restarting a fishery that has been shut down since 2004 -- when the last remaining Petersburg shrimp processor was sold off -- has been challenging.

"A lot of the information of where to go and how to do it has changed (since the shrimp were last fished in Petersburg), but a lot has been lost as the older fishermen who used to do it are gone," Gilbert said.

Gilbert said he has only three boats that can fish for salad shrimp and two are currently on salmon-fishing trips. Another problem: getting boats with the right permits. The state requires boats to be equipped with beam trawl gear -- a large, purse-shaped net held open by a metal pole, usually dragged by the boat behind two outriggers.

"There are only 28 permits in whole state for beam trawl," Gilbert said. "And only some of those are transferrable. So there aren't a lot of permits out there."

Getting the shrimp from Petersburg to Reykjavik, Iceland, is challenging -- and not just because of the 3,325 miles separating the two cities. Iceland requires all foreign imports to be shipped to the country in a specialized container, and Gilbert said he hasn't found a West Coast shipping company that would commit one of the containers for a trip across the Atlantic.

Last year, Tonka Seafoods tried to ship its products via the Panama Canal to the East Coast and from there to Iceland. But the barge, which was supposed to make the journey in just six weeks, didn't get there until much later.

"We had that slowdown on West Coast with longshoreman's union and it took six months to get our shrimp to Iceland," Gilbert said.

This year, Tonka Seafoods is putting the shrimp on a barge to Seattle. From there it goes by truck to Canada and is moved by rail to Nova Scotia, where it is loaded onto another boat for the trip to Iceland.

Despite the long and logistically complicated journey needed to get the shrimp to Europe, Gilbert said with high prices and demand holding in Europe, he hopes the salad shrimp fishery will be able to survive and expand in the coming seasons.

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