The wild B.C. spot prawn is the largest of the seven commercial species of shrimp found on the west coast of Canada with females often exceeding nine inches in length. They are most recognizable for their reddish brown colour (which turns bright pink when cooked), defining white spots on the tail and white horizontal bars on the carapace. All wild B.C. spot prawns are hermaphroditic – born as males, the female sex organs on their tails become more pronounced at about two years of age (at which point they are referred to as transitioning prawns or "trannys") with the final two years of their four-year lifespan spent as females.
The B,C. spot prawn fishery has become a sustainability benchmark for the wild capture fisheries. By harvesting with baited traps spread along the rocky ocean floor rather than with nets, this fishery has little impact on the sea bed and sees virtually no unintended or discarded bycatch of other species. Management policy limits the number of vessels which can commercially harvest as well as the number of traps that each vessel may deploy and requires that egg-bearing females be released. Abundance is regularly and closely monitored to trigger the closure of the fishery when the population approaches a pre-determined level.
To enable daily harvest of the traps which we set along the B.C. Sunshine Coast during the six to eight week season (from May through June), our purpose-built vessel employs a state-of-the-art propulsion system that enables high speed travel with minimal fuel consumption. As the B.C. spot prawns are harvested, they are placed in an on-board live tank which utilizes a computerized chilling system to circulate sea water drawn from the ocean floor. Within hours of harvest, the day's catch is offloaded into a waiting delivery truck that transports the live B.C. spot prawns to be served in local restaurants that evening. Customers across the continent receive next day delivery of live B.C. spot prawns and fresh B.C. spot prawn tails that are flown overnight from Vancouver International Airport. B.C. spot prawn tails frozen in brine at sea are supplied through the balance of the year.
Where the B.C. spot prawn has a uniquely sweet delicate flavour and delicious flesh that has established it as a feature item on the menus of the finest restaurants, the farmed tiger prawn has been described as "mushy in texture and almost devoid of flavor". Moreover, the antibiotics used in tiger prawn farming (31 different types were identified in Vietnam in a 2006 study) are rising to detectable levels in the tiger prawns. Tiger prawn and other shrimp farming is also causing irreversible damage to the mangrove ecosystem. "About 3.7 million acres of tropical coastal mangroves have been converted to shrimp farms," reports Seafood Watch. "So much waste builds up in the farm ponds that the farmers have to move on, leaving the water polluted and mangrove forests destroyed."
Chef Robert Clark on B.C. spot prawns:
How to Buy Is there a difference in the spot prawns available on the docks, at a fishmonger or from supermarkets like T&T? You can't get them fresher than live off a boat - most notably at the False Creek Fishermen's Wharf when they've been caught that very same day. And the fresher the better, because spot prawns are extremely delicate. Even the live spot prawns in fish-market tanks have passed through a couple of handlers, are at least a day old and have already begun eating themselves (gross, but true).
If you find them dead with their heads on, do not buy. Spot prawns release an enzyme when they die that turns the flesh soft and mushy. Fresh tails, which typically cost twice the price, are a safe bet, although you'll miss out on the heads, which some say are the best eating. When buying tails on ice, look for prawns with firm, translucent flesh. If the skin is white, they're old. Avoid any with black spots (that's the enzyme spreading). And make sure they smell fresh with no hint of ammonia.
Don't buy prawns at places that charge twice as much as anywhere else, but be cautious about deals that seem too good to be true. And some spot prawns are brought in from the United States, where they are caught sooner, smaller and often "berried" (before spawning, with eggs attached). One Asian grocer is selling live B.C. spot prawns which would have to have been from the United States. The B.C. season opens later, when the prawns have grown to full size and are about to die naturally. So buyer, beware.
How to prepare Once you get your live prawns home, cook them right away or get those heads off as soon as possible. If taking the heads off, rinse the tails under water to remove any traces of enzyme. Tails can be packed on ice and refrigerated for up to three days. These versatile shrimp can be steamed, grilled or sauteed. Whatever way you choose to go, try to handle them lightly. No heavy saucing or monster sauces. I prefer mine with the slight crunch acquired when barely cooked. I recommend pouring boiling water over top and letting them sit for 30 seconds to one minute.
One of my favorite dishes is a spot prawn and avocado salad. In a large bowl, mix 16 oz (454 g) of spot prawn tails with the zest of one lime and one lemon, one clove of minced garlic, and one tablespoon (15 ml) of olive oil and allow to marinade for 10 minutes. While the spot prawns are marinating, in a separate bowl toss one diced avocado, the juice from the zested lime, one diced tomato, one diced small red onion, and salt and pepper to taste. Heat a small sauté pan to high heat and cover the pan with one tablespoon (15 ml) of olive oil and add the marinated spot prawns. Cook for about 30 seconds while tossing and then remove the spot prawns from the pan. Add one teaspoon (5 ml) of Chipotle in tomato sauce to two tablespoons (30 ml) of Japanese mayonnaise and spread the mixture on to each of four plates. Divide the spot prawns evenly, garnish as desired with salad leaves and the diced avocado salad, and serve warm.
I made this soup for a spot prawn celebration menu at Yew restaurant on the opening day of the 2013 spot prawn season. Place 16 oz (454 g) of spot prawns in a shallow pan and then pour boiling salted water over the spot prawns and allow to cool. Sweat two tablespoons (30 ml) of shallots in one tablespoon (15 ml) of unsalted butter. Deglaze with two tablespoons (30 ml) of white wine. Add two cups (500 ml) of 35 per cent cream and bring to a boil. Add eight oz (225 g) of blanched green sweet peas and purée. Remove the heads and shells from the spot prawns. Pour the soup into four bowls, garnish with the spot prawns and serve. Season to taste with salt, pepper and nutmeg. If you wish to use prosciutto as a garnish, crisp them in a 350°F (175°C) oven on a baking sheet with parchment paper and weigh down with another baking sheet for about 12 to 14 minutes.
At the same 2013 spot prawn season opening event, Ned Bell, executive chef at the Four Seasons Hotel prepared his amazing green goddess B.C. spot prawn dish. The green goddess dressing has other uses — make some up to use as a dip for bread, sauce for seared scallops, halibut or salmon or even a spread on a vegetarian sandwich. Combine one ripe avocado (peeled and diced), two juiced lemons, six tablespoons (90 ml) of olive oil, and six tablespoons (90 ml) of chopped chives and purée in a blender until smooth. Season with sea salt and cracked black pepper. Place six peeled spot prawns in a medium-sized sauté pan and sauté over medium heat for two minutes. Add one tablespoon (15 ml) of diced shallots and two pieces of bacon, cooked crisp and crumbled (optional) to the spot prawns. Cook for one minute, tossing constantly. Add one-quarter of a sliced avocado. Smear the green goddess dressing on the plate and serve immediately. Multiply the recipe by the number of guests at the table.