Shrimp processing ends in Petersburg

Norquest Seafoods officials cite smaller shrimp, fuel prices

Posted: Sunday, June 26, 2005

PETERSBURG - The last seafood company handling Petersburg shrimp here is ending processing of the tiny shellfish.

"It's the hardest thing I have ever had to do in business," said Dave Ohmer, Norquest Seafoods plant manager, of the company's decision to close its shrimp processing fishery.

Sitting behind his desk at the company founded by his grandfather, Earl Nicholas Ohmer, in 1917 as Alaska Glacier Sea Food, and passed on to his father, David Paul Ohmer, Ohmer thumbed through old newspaper clippings, the original account ledger and old photographs.

"I have never felt so sad, so disheartened, in my life."

The small, sweet salad shrimp carried Petersburg through the depression of 1928 and fires that damaged the processor in 1943 and 1985, but company officials said shrimp processing can no longer stay afloat in the broadening currents of the seafood industry.

"Two weeks into this season I was very disappointed where we were," Ohmer said of May shrimp harvests. "We had hopes that things would get better this year but from the first drags fisherman stated there were not as much shrimp out here and the ones that were are smaller."

The shrimp will still be sold at a local fish market and purchased for freezing by a processor in Wrangell.

Smaller shrimp, a trend experienced before, was just one factor in the Norquest decision. Higher fuel prices also were a major concern. The plant required fuel to make steam to cook shrimp. Fishermen needed it to run to the grounds and back with their fresh catch.

"Shrimp fishermen often begin their day at 3 a.m., drag shrimp all day, run six hours to town, dump their catch, and run six hours back to get four or five hours sleep before doing it all again," Ohmer said.

Norquest had tried two-day trips and icing shrimp in the holds, hoping to find ways to be more cost effective.

"We've fought a good fight," Ohmer said. "But even while our fishermen have been struggling with the price we had to pay, we still haven't been able to be profitable at our end."

The company also wants to expand other seafood lines. It will use space taken up by shrimp processing machines and cookers to expand salmon and long line operations, Ohmer said.

If workers were running shrimp and a load of black cod came in, there were not enough workers to do both products.

Norquest processed more than 800,000 pounds of shrimp last year, lower than its allowable quota of 2.5 million pounds, even though the local worker pool had diminished.

The biggest hardship will be on shrimp fishermen. Four boats consistently supplied Norquest in the final years.

"It's devastating," said fisherman Paul Prevatt. "I just need a little time to think about this. I'm still in a little shock here. Hopefully something else will come along."

Prevatt, 48, a 17-year veteran of the shrimp beam trawl fishery, stood mid-deck on his boat, the Pacific Sea, last Saturday, watching his last shrimp sale to Norquest being hoisted to the canneries dock.

"It was nice to fish close by, to go home every night. You never knew what you would catch or see - icebergs, eagles diving, whales and all that stuff. In the winter when it's snowing it was extremely peaceful and quiet."

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