One of Petersburg’s small seafood processors is about to get a lot bigger. Tonka Seafoods has bought a long-unused cannery building and dock from Trident Seafoods. The move to the much larger, waterfront facility will mean a major expansion for Tonka which plans to substantially increase the company’s production and workforce once the plant is fully up and running within the next year. Matt Lichtenstein asked Tonka’s owners about their plans and filed this report:
For mobile-friendly audio, click here.

Tonka owners Seth Scrimsher (left) and Wendell Gilbert (right) just after closing on their purchase of the long-unused Mitkof Cannery and Dock.

“I’m excited, I’m excited to get out there and start moving things around and try to make a really nice plant outa that out there,” says Wendell Gilbert, President of Tonka Seafood’s. The custom fish processing company just finished buying the Mitkof Cannery building from Trident Seafoods, “So I was really looking forward to this. I’ve been waiting a long time and its just been taking forever to get done and I’m ready. I’m ready to go. Let’s go. Let’s do this.”

It’s a huge step for the small, local company. Seth Scrimsher is Chief Financial Officer, “There is a little bit of stress involved going from a smaller operation to making the leap to the larger operation but (I’m) definitely relieved that the deal is done. We’re out there. The first stage is done,” says Scrimsher.

Without going into detail on the price, Scrimsher says Tonka financed the purchase. He says the company needs to have as much working capital as possible for buying fish and other operations, so they weren’t able to purchase the building outright.

Mitkof Cannery

The plant is close to downtown Petersburg on Mitkof Highway, just past the ferry terminal. Gilbert says Tonka bought the waterfront Facilities, but not the warehouse closer to the road, “Everything has basically been stripped out of this plant. It is a bare bones project that we have to build back up from scratch. So we’re buying a shell of a building with a nice big dock. And we’re not sure how its all going to come together yet. We’re working on it. We’ve got plans. We’ve got people working on it already. And its just….come see us next year and you’ll see what we come up with.”

Tonka’s current plant is located on the first floor of a downtown apartment building and has no waterfront access to take deliveries from fishermen. Having a much larger facility as well as a dock will make a big difference for the company.

Scrimsher says Tonka has needed more space for a while, “We’ve kind of outgrown our existing facility over two years ago. So, we’ve been struggling in the small space we’re at. So, its probably been about a two to three year project. This plant became available last spring. So, we’ve been working on that for about a year.”

Gilbert and Scrimsher hope to have their whole business moved out to the new, roomier location by late May and continue with their normal operations for now.

“We anticipate to continue doing the same kind of work we’re doing here. We’re not goin g to stop doing custom processing right now. We’re going to keep doing the custom processing along with more processing at the new facility and making it easier to do the job much easier and faster so that’s going to help us a lot,” says Gilbert.

The company plans to build up the facility’s capacity to handle more fish over the next year.

Tonka currently processes less than a million pounds of fish a year, according to Scrimsher who says, with the bigger plant, they hope increase that to between six and seven million pounds for all species.

“There’s some things we need to do. We need to remodel the ice house. We need a little remodeling on the dock. So, yeah there is some facility work we’ll need to do before we can expand into the larger fisheries but we’re able to do it, kind of remodel as we go instead of all at once. So, that’s the plan,” says Scrimsher.

Tonka Seafoods empolyees Shane Carnes and Brandon Estes hold up the sign that will soon hang over the Mitkof Cannery building.

Scrimsher says Tonka employs six people year round and up to eighteen at the peak of the summer. Scrimsher hopes to double that once the new plant is fully geared up in a year or so.

Along with more salmon, he says the company will be looking to buy more halibut, black cod, pacific cod, rockfish and other species. They want to eventually get the equipment to process shrimp and they’d also like to expand into flounder, which has not been commercially fished since the 1970’s in Southeast. According to Gilbert and Scrimsher, the seafood market is showing renewed interest in those flat fish.

“We are interested in every potential that the oceans have to offer around here and us being a small, year-round company, we feel we can take advantage of smaller, kind of niche fisheries that the larger companies don’t have a desire to or aren’t open certain times of year to take advantage of them,” says Scrimsher.

They both credit Petersburg’s Community Cold Storage with helping their company grow to the point that it could make this move.

Gilbert says the public facility made it possible for his business to fill much bigger orders, “Without that local cold storage, we would be having a serious problem trying to store fish. Because, especially now that we’ve gone into these bigger projects, we’re bringing in fish by the container load and we have no storage here. So, without that Petersburg cold storage there, we would not have been able to do this at all.”

The community cold storage is owned and operated by the Petersburg Economic Development Development Council. PEDC coordinator Liz Cabrera think’s Tonka’s expansion to the Mitkof Cannery will do a lot for the community.

First, she says it’s great to see a local company investing so much here in town, “Secondly, seeing them use a facility that has laid dormant for a few years, so putting that asset to work is also great for our town. As a fishing community, we all know anytime more seafood is landed, crossing the dock here, it’s good for the borough coffers. Its good for employment. It’s good for brinGing more fishing boats to town. So, the multiplier effect, if you will, is great. It’s fantastic and we really are excited to see what Tonka’s doing and their prospects for the future.”

The Mitkof Canery dates back to the 1950’s, according to Tonka’s Gilbert, who says they’ve done extensive surveys and everything looks sound. The facility last canned fish in 2003 when it was owned by Norquest Seafoods which bought the plant in 1999. Trident bought Norquest in 2004.

And in the interests of full disclosure, the author of this article works as a commercial troller in his spare time and has sold fish to several of Petersburg’s local processing plants, including Tonka.

# # #