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Pelican seafood plant set to reopen

Two years after closing, residents hope for a busy summer

Posted: Wednesday, May 24, 2006

Proud Pelican residents are dusting off their seafood plant, shuttered for two years, for what they hope will become a full-throttle summer on the slime line.

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If all goes as planned, the jobs lost at Pelican Seafoods when it closed in 2004 will be restored. Raw fish tax will once again flow to city coffers. The laundry, the grocery store, and local restaurants and bars will once again welcome Southeast commercial fishermen.

"All in all, it's a good thing," Pelican Mayor Patricia Phillips said ebulliently on Tuesday.

Kake Tribal Corp. owns the seafood plant and signed papers a couple of weeks ago leasing the plant to the regionally operated Ed Bahrt & Associates.

The village corporation struggled with debt, closing Pelican Seafoods and the Kake cold storage due to its financial woes of the last few years. Leasing the plant "provides some revenue that we haven't had," said Kake Tribal President Harold Martin.

Bahrt, a Sitka native whose father and uncle helped build Pelican Seafoods, says he is focused on working with the residents of Pelican to breathe the plant back to life.

"I understand the history of Pelican. I know the way it used to be and I think I know the way it can be down the road," Bahrt said Tuesday.

Bahrt plans to buy salmon, black cod and halibut primarily from longline and troll fishermen who are based in Pelican and nearby communities. Bahrt said he'll also be equipped to provide ice, boat supplies and groceries to other fishermen passing through Cross Sound.

Pelican has long been renowned for providing the best ice to Southeast Alaska fishermen.

"If I run low on ice, I'll be going there," said Ted Merrell, a Juneau longliner.

"It's always good to have more (fish) buyers around," Merrell added.

The fish that cross the Pelican dock this summer will be sold to Bahrt's longtime seafood industry clients in the United States, Europe and Asia, Bahrt said.

"We are going to buy fish and we are going to freeze it," he added.

Bahrt noted Pelican residents have been washing and cleaning the plant for a month in preparation of the plant's reopening, targeted for June 5.

The plant will likely employ about 20 people and the locals who worked there before it closed have a job waiting for them, Bahrt added.

"I can tell the people of Pelican are really proud they are going to be able to operate (the plant) again," Bahrt said.

Bahrt said he doesn't know how well the season will go, but he'd be "happy as a clam" if the plant can freeze 35,000 to 50,000 pounds of fish daily.

His lease runs through the 2006 fishing season. "I'm going to try to make the operation a success," Bahrt said.

He said he was lucky enough to return to Southeast Alaska just when the market for wild salmon began improving. Many fishermen had left the business and plants shut their doors in the economic depression brought on by competition from low-priced farmed salmon.

Prices have now improved, particularly for troll-caught salmon. "I'm fortunate to be a recipient of good market timing. Otherwise, I probably wouldn't be doing this," Bahrt said.

Bahrt has previous experience managing Southeast Alaska fish operations, having worked years ago as a foreman and then plant manager for the Seafood Producers Cooperative in Sitka.

More recently, Bahrt worked for Asian firms as a seafood buyer in a variety of fisheries, ranging from Bristol Bay salmon to herring out of Togiak.

Bahrt and his family returned to Sitka the same year that Pelican Seafoods went out of business.

In 2005, Bahrt made a limited arrangement to use the Pelican Seafoods dock as a transfer station for his clients' fish. Bahrt also kick-started a relationship with Wrangell Seafoods, providing some financing for its plant in the southern Panhandle and buying pink salmon for Chinese customers.

Bahrt said he has financial backing from the U.S. subsidiary of Royal Greenland, a Danish fish conglomerate that is the 10th-largest seafood company in the world.

"They understand the fish business," Bahrt said. "If I need something and it's justified ... they go for it."

• Elizabeth Bluemink can be reached at elizabeth.bluemink@juneauempire.com.



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