As we wrap up the 2017 BC Shellfish Festival in Courtenay, BC, we also near the end of another season for our beloved Spot Prawns. I remember clearly the first time that I cooked them, sitting at a picnic table in Goldstream Provincial Park, just outside of Victoria on Vancouver Island. Having come from Nanaimo earlier in the day, we managed to buy a couple of pounds of prawns on the docks. As a 20 year old hobby cook, I was up for a bit of an adventure, but was generally expecting a fresher version of the frozen shrimp that we imported back home on the Prairies. We sat in the campground with very limited cooking supplies, newspaper spread across the table, a recipe for “Prawns Grand Marnier”, and most likely a bottle of Lorch Piesporter wine (which at the time we thought was a pretty classy step up from Black Tower and Mateus).
At first we thought we made a bit of a raw deal and they saw us for the tourists which we were, as every prawn had white spots! But now we were committed, and with no backup supply of Kraft Dinner, we continued. It was obvious that these were unlike any prawns or shrimp that we had tasted before, with a delicate texture and a slight sweetness that I find hard to describe with only words.
Spot prawns are affectionately referred to as the lobster of Canada’s West Coast. Every spring on the Coast of BC, locals go crazy for the delicacy when the short fishing season opens – only a three-to-five-week period from mid-May until the end of June before quotas are reached. BC spot prawns are a wild (not farmed) species, caught with baited traps dropped deep into the Pacific Ocean – a technique that is gentle on the habitat and other species. It is a closely monitored fishery, with quantity and quality carefully maintained to ensure it continues year over year.
Not that long ago, hardly anyone knew about spot prawns. While always popular with native and sport fishermen, who are allowed to catch them year-round, there were hardly any commercial sales. In fact just a decade ago, British Columbia spot prawns were a bottom-of-the-barrel seafood product – the mushy filler for chowder and fortifier of cheap fish stock. 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? 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 in Vancouver (2017 marked the eleventh year) 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.
Basically, it’s a prawn with spots
The wild B.C. spot prawn is the largest of all seven commercial species of shrimp found in the Pacific Northwest. They are reddish-brown, turning bright pink when cooked, with defining white spots on their tails. They vary greatly in size, with some larger females exceeding 23 cm in total length. When properly handled and cooked, they are firm in texture, with a luscious, sweet flavour. The commercial B.C. spot-prawn fishery harvests approximately 2,540 metric tonnes annually, between Vancouver Island and the mainland, and the Chef’s Table Society of B.C. works hard to promote the sustainable, local virtues of Spot Prawns.
Prawns Grand Marnier
2 Tbsp. Olive Oil
1 Clove Garlic, Minced
1 Medium Onion, Finely Chopped
1 Pound BC Spot Prawns in Shell
2 Tbsp. White Wine
Juice of 1/2 Lemon
2 Tbsp. Grand Marnier
2 Tbsp Fresh Parsley, Finely Chopped