Squeezed by foreign competition and skyrocketing rent, the biggest fish-processing plant in Santa Barbara will move to Ventura in August and turn most of its attention toward distribution.
Seafood Specialties, a 16-year-old company with gross revenue of $3 million a year, plans to move Aug. 15 into a new building at 1785 Ventura Ave. The firm already runs a small fish-processing operation in Ventura Harbor.
Mike Wagner, who has owned Seafood Specialties for 14 years, said rising costs caused him to trade a building of 8,000 square feet in Santa Barbara for a facility of 5,800 square feet in Ventura, where rents are lower.
"Ventura is beginning to put the lid on growth, but it is still attractive for businesses to move there," he said.
Upon its arrival in Ventura, the company will shift its focus from fish processing--which simply entails filleting and cleaning the fish--to wholesale distribution. Wagner said the Santa Barbara location is primarily a processing facility and is too large--and, consequently, too expensive--for the needs of a distributor, who cuts the fish into marketable pieces and peddles it to restaurants and supermarkets.
Wagner said he decided to leave Santa Barbara and redirect the focus of his business not only because of high overhead costs, but because of foreign competition. Fishermen from Asia and South America sell processed fish to U.S. distributors cheaper than domestic processing plants such as Seafood Specialties can.
When it moves and becomes a distribution plant, Seafood Specialties will buy from those foreign dealers. However, Wagner said, he will continue to purchase some fish from fishermen based in Santa Barbara.
Wagner said his business has suffered also from the exploration practices of oil companies, who pay fishermen to quit temporarily when they use an area for drilling or seismic testing. Though the same situation exists off Ventura, Seafood Specialties will no longer be dependent on the boats because of its new emphasis on distribution.
Wagner said he expects that 20 of the company's 30 employees will move with the firm and, to fill the remaining positions he plans to hire and train local workers.
In addition, Wagner said, Seafood Specialties will "legitimize" Ventura's fishing industry by boosting its amount.
Local fishing industry spokesmen are not convinced.
"Ventura keeps growing as it is," said Ellen Wayman, owner of the 10-year-old Wayman Fish Co. in Ventura. "He may add to it, but it won't be just because of him. There isn't going to be any more fish than there is coming through now."
Seafood Specialties, which was founded in 1972 to sell abalone, markets tuna, shark, lobster, red snapper, yellowtail--virtually everything that swims, Wagner said, except sea urchin and rock crab.