'Shrimp Guy' wraps up another season

Posted: Sunday, February 04, 2001

Many people know Denny Capua or at least know who he is. But most know him only as "the live prawn guy."

Capua is a winter weekly regular at the Harris Harbor dock selling his catch of writhing, tail-whipping spotted prawns. He has been selling the delicacy at the downtown dock since the Thanksgiving Storm of 1984, he said.

Capua is one of few people eking out a living fishing Southeast's waters during the winter. Rain, wind and raw temperatures are often the norm, but Capua likes it. Few people are out and on his most recent trip, he didn't see anyone for five days, he said.

Capua's marketing strategy is simple. Two simple plywood signs announce "live prawns" with an arrow pointing to the harbor parking lot.

"I like to get signs up by 7:30 in the morning so people going to work can think about it all day," he said with a smile.

Sometimes he makes his presence known on KINY's "Problem Corner" radio program. He then relies on locals' craving of fresh seafood in the middle of winter. Even in last Tuesday's 38-degree driving rain, customers lined up several deep, buying five pounds at a time.

"They come down during all types of weather," Capua said.

When no one is lined up, he heads into the small galley and sits down for a few moments, sipping coffee and watching the one broadcast channel his TV gets.

This particular day, he was joined for a while by friend Dennis Sabadin, who helped get bags ready to be filled when there was a line.

"Denny and I used to catch a lot of halibut," he said, while they chatted over coffee about fishing, family and wild times.

When another customer shows up, and they're out selling shrimp again.

"I prefer to sell them off the dock," Capua said, adding that his customers get a better quality product and he gets more money.

Capua said he doesn't get rich, in part because it's expensive to run his 54-foot boat, the Coronation. There's gear, fuel, maintenance and all the associated costs. And the lifestyle is costly in other ways.

Capua was married for 12 years and has three children, all in Petersburg. The marriage failed for a number of reasons, he said, but top among them was fishing.

"I was gone too much and bought too many boats," said Capua, who now calls Juneau home, or the landlubber equivalent - mailing address: General Delivery.

"Other than (when I was married), I've never had an apartment or anything. I've always lived on boats," he said.

The 44-year-old started fishing on his uncle's gillnetter when he was 12. He claimed to have crewed on more than 300 boats up and down the West Coast and owned five.

"I'm versatile," he said. "I can park my boat, crew on other boats during the summer and go shrimping again in the fall."

Like Alaska's economy, Capua has gone through boom and bust cycles including seven years spent crab fishing during the Bering Sea's glory years, he said.

But his favorite is the Southeast shrimp fishery. This year, he made about 16 trips to the downtown dock, the latest and last of the season with about 500 pounds he sold for $4 a pound Wednesday and Thursday.

Capua accounts for a small fraction of the Southeast shrimp fishery. The commercial pot shrimp fleet harvested slightly more than 1 million pounds this season worth around $6 million to $7 million, said William Bergmann, a biologist with the state Department of Fish and Game.

Most Southeast shrimp are flash frozen and end up on Japanese dinner plates, he said.

Only a few of the 16 Southeast districts remain open for commercial pot shrimp fishing. The season opens Oct. 1 and closes Feb. 28 unless the area quota has been reached. Most districts reached their quota in the first month, Bergmann said.

Prices for the commercial fleet this year have been good, he said, averaging around $4 a pound for tails and around $6 a pound for "jumbos" - the high quality, flash-frozen product shipped to Japan.

But only a handful of out of more than 150 boats sell shrimp dockside, he said.

Those who missed buying some of Capua's squirming crustaceans will probably have to wait until next fall. He's heading to Petersburg next to crew on someone else's boat for the tanner crab opening, he said. After that, if he does well, he'll most likely take his boat to Dutch Harbor to try his hand at shrimping there.

Before heading off, Capua sold to some of his Juneau regulars, including Joann Rieselbach.

She has been a customer for about five years and keeps an eye out for his first trip, then comes back two or three times a month until the season ends. Besides eating the traditional tail meat, Rieselbach said her children love to eat the eggs and she makes a Thai soup that gets its stock from the simmered heads and shells.

"It's sooo good," Rieselbach said noting that buying fresh, whole prawns makes a difference. "Isn't this what living in Southeast is all about?"

Mike Hinman can be reached at mhinman@juneauempire.com.

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