Spot on! Spotted prawns make for one sweet local treat

Spott(ed) prawn season is in full swing and for the rest of us, these local delights can’t roll off the boats soon enough. (7 May 2008) Pique NewsMagazine

7 May 2008

By Glenda Bartosh

Dave Smith and Geno — and any of the other ’stache stars at Sushi Village’s Mustache Night — might think twice before ploughing through a bucketful with their bushy soup strainers. But spotted prawn season is in full swing and for the rest of us, these local delights can’t roll off the boats soon enough.

Spotted prawns, as they’ve traditionally been called and I’m sticking to it, (“spot” prawns is the current cool vernacular) are unique to the B.C. and Alaska coasts.

Some of the finest prawn fishers are based on the west coast of Vancouver Island, in Hecate Strait and up to the Queen Charlottes, and on the Sunshine Coast. But if you’re in the Big Smoke this coming month or so, swing by Granville Island so you can pick up a pound or three of fresh ones at the market or, better yet, hit the docks most mornings and you’ll be able to buy ’em right off the boat.

Once you taste a properly, as in not overly cooked, spotted prawn you’ll be hooked, lined and sinkered. Sweet, a bit nutty and oh so tender, they’re as addicting as buttered popcorn. I once ordered a pound in a little hole-in-the-wall joint in Port Alberni. They came in a mini-galvanized pail. I scoffed them down and promptly ordered another pound, after I’d had a deep-fried serving in between to tide me over.

Spotted prawns are interesting little fellows. Like all prawns, they’re really shrimp; we just call them prawns once they reach a certain size. And like the other six species of shrimp in the Pandalidae family fished off the B.C. coast (spotties are Pandalus platyceros), they’re also “protandric hermaphrodites.” Quite a mouthful, but all it means is that they primarily start life as males and turn into females in the final year or two of their brief three- or four-year lives. Now that’s a good trick.

Very few start life as females and remain female throughout. Those are called women. Sorry. They’re actually called primary females, also a potentially good name for women.

B.C.’s shrimp display all sorts of variations in things such as behavior and migration patterns, but spotted prawns, so named for the distinctive white spots on their orangey exoskeletons, are pretty much bottom dwellers that don’t migrate very far, except occasionally to shallower, intertidal waters. They’ve been found at depths of up to 500 metres, but usually hang out around 70-90 metres.

One of the best things about them, besides their delectable taste and delicate texture, is that the fishery is sustainable. So they make yummy candidates for 100-mile-or-so diet fans or other conscientious/otherwise discerning eaters around these parts.

“They are the only shrimp caught in B.C. that are considered Ocean Wise (see note below),” says Guy Dean, vice-president for Albion Fisheries Ltd., which supplies fish and seafood to quality retail and food service outlets, including Whistler’s La Rúa, Araxi, Bearfoot Bistro and Rimrock.

“It’s a different fishery compared to other shrimp caught on the coast. These are all caught in traps, whereas the rest of the shrimp are caught with beam trawlers. It’s essentially a quota fishery, not an individual quota per boat — it’s a quota area-wide, so once the quota is achieved they’ll close it down, likely by mid-June this year.”

The spotted prawns destined for our dinner plates meet their fate in traps that look like big round, netted crab traps. They’re attracted to the bait (krill or shrimp-based products), fall into the trap and can’t get out.

Traps and spotties don’t sit around for long. Fishers pull them up about every three to six hours so the prawns are alive when they’re hauled up on board, perfect for the fresh/live market or processing on board (frozen at sea) or shore-side plants for the Japanese market.

Besides the area-wide quota, what keeps the spotted prawn fishery sustainable is the fact it’s a very selective fishery with virtually no by-catch — other shrimp or prawns are seldom suckered into the trap.

Plus it’s way more sustainable than most of the prawns out there (tiger prawns etc.), which are primarily coming out of Southeast Asian waters. Those fisheries entail a long diesel-fuelled haul to bring the products over the ocean to us, this after using all sorts of chemicals and antibiotics because the giant prawns are raised in such confined conditions. Yuck.

So feast away on our lovely local spotted prawns.

And what’s the secret to cooking these little gems? In a word, barely.

“I’ve taken some jumbo ones and chucked them on the barbecue for, like, 20 seconds,” says Guy. “The problem is everybody overcooks them and they become mushy. The whole point is really not to overdo it — no more than 20 seconds a side.” Note: that’s seconds, not minutes.

Also, try steaming them over a big pot of salted water, like the ones I had in Port Alberni. Use your veggie steamer to hold the prawns so they don’t touch the boiling water. Steam them for two minutes — max — one minute recommended. Serve them piping hot, no drawn butter, olive oil, or white wine required. Nature at her finest.

If you don’t feel like cooking them at home, try La Rúa and Bearfoot Bistro for your spotted prawn fix right now.

* * *
A strong supporter of the Vancouver Aquarium’s conservation program called Ocean Wise, Albion currently has a list of fresh and frozen Ocean Wise products that’s as long as your arm — pollock, mussels, herring, striped bass, catfish, arctic char, tilapia, trout, black cod and even some wild salmon, but check out which species and runs. The company puts in a lot of effort sourcing products that are wild-caught in sustainable fisheries and not raised on antibiotics and chemicals.

Ocean Wise works directly with restaurants and markets to ensure they have the latest scientific information regarding seafood and to help them — and you — make ocean-friendly buying decisions. Look for the distinctive Ocean Wise symbol on menus and store display cases.

Glenda Bartosh is an award-winning freelance writer who has mixed feelings about letting you in on the annual spring spotted prawn rituals.

Source:  Pique Newsmagazine