By Dick Kauffman
February 06, 2006
Cassin, a commercial diver involved in construction, salvage and the urchin fishery for the past 20 years, moved to Southeast in 1995 and to Ketchikan in 1999.
He said, "If I took you out on a boat, dressed you in a $2,000 dry suit, loaded you down with another 110+ pounds of lead and dive gear; then asked you to jump off into 60 feet of sea water, you might feel a bit uncomfortable. That's where I've been for the last 20 years." You might want some training, or at least advice from those with the experience and those already in business.
Ketchikan is a unique place to do business and you [Chamber members] are the ones with the experience said Cassin.
Cassin said the urchin business is in trouble right now. Looking around the room, he said some of you helped in getting the urchin fishery business started along with help from the Borough Assembly and donated help from Craig, Wrangell and Petersburg.
Since 1997, Cassin said eleven of the twelve processors in the Ketchikan area are now gone. Today there is only one. With 12 processors, divers have a choice of who to sell to and competition kept the ex-vessel price fair said Cassin. With only one processor, that's not the case. Of the urchin divers like myself, Cassin said, all have had their boats tied up at various times during the past two years due to low prices.
Now comes Pacific Sun Products looking to invest in Ketchikan, buy property, build a plant and with previous sales experiences to see the project through said Cassin.
Pacific Sun's interest and willingness to invest is a marked reversal of what we have experienced with processors leaving the area. Pacific Sun wants to come to Ketchikan and build a two-million dollar plant.
Cassin said Pacific Sun Products has been looking since April 2005 for a small piece of property to buy that's zoned for heavy industrial to build on, or looking for a small building with about 4,000 square feet in which to process sea urchins. Pacific Sun Products is looking for waterfront property on which to build a dock or with a dock, access to the highway, city water and electricity. He said they have looked at several pieces of property that have fell through for one reason or another such as the seller not wanting to split a piece of industrial property.
He said this plant will mean employment for Ketchikan. Initially the plant would employ eight workers and eventually around 16. He said it will be a small plant, similar to a warehouse.
Sea urchin divers can work about 200 days per year depending on the weather said Cassin. A year-round season means year-round divers and workers. Year-round workers with home mortgages, boat payments, fuel, maintenance, parts, trucks, groceries -- you can see where the economic multiplier will take you said Cassin.
Cassin said 31 divers worked in southeast with 75 percent of the product taken coming from the Ketchikan area during the 2004/05 season. During that same season, there was a 5.5 million pound quota and only 33 percent of the quota was taken. This season, 2005/06, the quota is larger at 5.7 million pounds.
During the same 04/05 season, British Columbia took over 15 million pounds of sea urchins with an ex-vessel value of $0.56 U.S. That was 100 percent more that our $0.28 average said Cassin.
Unlike most fisheries, urchins are harvested year-round. This presents the processor not only the ability but also the opportunity to have year-round employees. The product and production both win by not having to constantly train new hires to care for the product said Cassin.
Better trained employees make higher wages and a steady supply of the product assures a notch in the marketplace. Cassin added, a year-round season means fishermen in Ketchikan will be spending money year-round in Ketchikan.
Critical to the value of the uni or urchin roe product is its freshness. From the time the urchins are unloaded at the dock until they are cracked, scooped, packaged, chilled and delivered to the airport is normally less than 18 hours.
Another processor could easily move into this area. There's plenty of room in the market said Cassin.
The only obstacle holding back job creation and a boost to the local economy is finding the property on which Pacific Sun Products can locate its plant.