British Columbia’s spot prawn season kicked off on May 17 with the ever-popular Spot Prawn Festival at Vancouver’s False Creek Fishermen’s Wharf. But are these celebrated crustaceans a local success story or just another over-priced oceanic luxury? Vv’s Alexandra Gill reports.
Spot prawns are affectionately referred to as the lobster of Canada’s west coast. Sweet, firm and sustainably managed, British Columbia’s spot prawns are the largest of seven commercial shrimp series found on the west coast – often growing to 23 cm in length.
Every spring, Vancouverites go crazy for the local delicacy when the short fishing season opens, as it did this week. Although available frozen year-round, for a three-to-five-week period each spring (until the fishermen’s quotas are reached), the prawns can be purchased live and kicking off the docks, usually for a much better price than in grocery stores.
On Sunday, the local catch was celebrated with the 9th annual Spot Prawn Festival at False Creek Fishermen’s Wharf. The arrival of the boats were heralded with drums, followed by a big boil-up feast, live music, on-stage culinary demos, vendors, kids’ activities and the opportunity to stock up on spot prawns to eat at home. Thousands of people attend every year. In Vancouver, this is a really big deal.
It wasn’t always this way. Ten years ago, hardly anyone knew about spot prawns even though they’d been pot-trapped in our backyard waters since time immemorial. While always popular with native and sport fishermen, who are allowed to catch them year-round, there were hardly any commercial sales. Nearly 95 per cent of the harvest was exported overseas, mostly to Japan, where they were (and still are) highly coveted and could demand big bucks.
Then the local chefs started asking questions. We drink BC wines, support local farmers and search high and low for the best local cheeses, grains and charcuterie. So why can’t we buy these gorgeous local prawns? They wanted answers.
The Chef’s Table Society of B.C. partnered with Organic Ocean Seafood to create Vancouver’s first regular day-boat spot prawn industry. Instead of selling all the spot prawns overseas, a small portion was reserved for chefs and shoppers willing to wander down to the docks and buy off the boats. Other fishing vessels followed suit. The Spot Prawn Festival was created to raise awareness. Grocery stores began stocking them to keep up with demand. The rest of Canada caught on. Direct live sales routes were established. And now, you can’t go to any decent seafood restaurant across the country without finding fresh spot prawns on the menu.
Then catastrophe struck. Last year, a disease called Early Mortality Syndrome decimated Asia’s farm-raised tiger prawn industry. International buyers, primarily from Asia, scrambled to find an alternate source of big, meaty prawns. They showed up on the Vancouver docks on the opening day of the spot prawn season willing to pay top dollar. They wanted as much as they could take.
Overnight, the price of spot prawns shot up nearly 50 per cent – to $17 to $19 per lb off the docks, up from $14 to $15 the year before. In Toronto, the price went up to $35 per lb.
Many Vancouver chefs bought less, opting instead for side stripe shrimp, a newly viable alternative now that the local product has been deemed OceanWise friendly. (Plus, it sells for far less.) A few Vancouver chefs stopped buying them altogether. Regular customers kept buying off the docks. There was no dent in demand.
But will Vancouver’s spot prawn love affair last if prices continue to rise?
It’s too early to say how this season will play out, but the indicators don’t look great. For the last three weeks, Washington spot prawns (their season opens earlier) have been selling in grocery stores for $25 to $30 per lb.
On Fisherman’s Wharf, the prices opened this week at $17 to $19 a pound, depending on the vendor. “I had to keep it down for the Festival,” says Steve Johansen of Organic Ocean. “But it might go up,” he cautions.
Chefs are buying, but mostly because they have to.
“Is it worth it?” asks Pino Posteraro, chef and owner of Cioppino’s, a fine-dining restaurant in Yaletown. “They’re like truffles. You’re not making money on them. The margins are very slim. But you have to have them on your menu for the prestige factor. We fought so hard to have them, people expect them.”
Johansen says the fear mongering is overblown. “There was a lot of whining last year, but only two chefs left.” (Yes, but one was Frank Pabst of Blue Water Café + Raw Bar, arguably the most famous seafood restaurant in Vancouver, which was telling.)
“People are still coming to the festival,” adds Johansen. “We can’t keep up with demand. Everyone is really, really excited. It’s such a great local success story.”
Yes, but for whom? And for how long?
Images by Karen Hamilton and Tyler Branston
What are some of your favourite spot prawn recipes? Let Vv Magazine know in the comments below or tweet us @ViewTheVibe.