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How Spot Prawns Became a Legendary Delicacy in B.C.

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Home-cooked B.C. spot prawns served after being poached in butter and sea salt, and soaked for one minute in boiling water. Roasted cherry tomatoes and spicy aioli accompany the delicacy. (Adrian Brijbassi photo for Vacay.ca)

A North Vancouver morning arrives with Steve Johansen’s boat already on the water. The sky is moody, as it tends to be on the north shore, with grey clouds menacing with rain and a thick forest of pine trees climbing above the rocky ground. Johansen motors past waterfalls and toward the Indian Arm fjord where meltwater from the snow-capped Coastal Mountains deluge the basin each spring, fostering life. A wake churns behind the shining steel stern until the chug of the boat’s engine stops near a massive orange buoy marked “Organic”. A rope line connects the buoy to 50 submerged traps owned by Johansen’s company, Organic Ocean.

One at a time, the traps — baited with chopped sardines, oil, and kibble — are hauled over the starboard side and emptied of their catch. Crabs and rockfish that invaded are plopped back into the water. The traps are meant only for one species: The much loved and globally coveted British Columbia spot prawn.

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Organic Ocean’s Rob Fenton and the delicious catch of B.C. spot prawns, hauled up from Indian Arm in North Vancouver. (Adrian Brijbassi photo for Vacay.ca)

Once all have been collected, the captain and his two-man crew lower trays containing a total of about 10 pounds into a hatch. Johansen then turns on the tap above the cavity and, as water gushes over his catch, declares, “This is how you make prawns happy.”

About 100 gallons of water, kept at precisely 3 Celsius degrees (36 Fahrenheit) and saturated with smoked sea salt, bathes the tan-coloured shells of the prawns, keeping them alive and healthy. It is the first step in the delivery of spot prawns to the plates of diners from Vancouver to New York and Asia — an annual frenzy that Johansen has helped to build.

A lifelong fisherman and the co-founder of Organic Ocean, Johansen has earned credit for the proliferation of the spot prawn, which at the turn of the 21st century was considered undesirable by Vancouver chefs and restaurateurs. It wasn’t until Johansen and the Chefs’ Table Society of British Columbia, led by Robert Clark, decided to champion it in the local market that the spot prawn gained esteem.

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Captain Steve Johansen has helped to promote the sustainable harvesting of the B.C. spot prawn. Johansen’s Organic Ocean is credited with the rise in interest for the tasty seafood treat. (Adrian Brijbassi photo for Vacay.ca)

The first B.C. Spot Prawn Festival debuted in 2007 and interest was so fierce that “the amount of people who showed up nearly sank the dock” on Granville Island, Clark recalls. The craze for the delicacy has not abated. Prior to the festival and the advocacy of Johansen and Clark, nearly 100% of the spot prawns harvested in B.C. were exported to Asia. Now, 20% stay in North America, Clark says, and a lot of that portion remains in British Columbia, filling menus from Tofino to Nelson. 

The sea change in attitude occurred partly because of desperation. Clark, a pioneer of the local-food movement, stopped serving any shrimp in 2004 because what was most widely available were black tiger prawns from Thailand, which was revealed to be harvested by slave workers, a practice that turned off ethical chefs and businesses.

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Spencer Marshall, an Organic Ocean crew member, prepares to lower a trap containing bait for spot prawns into the waters of North Vancouver. (Adrian Brijbassi photo for Vacay.ca)

“I took farmed tiger prawns off the menu at C. I’m sure we were the only seafood restaurant in the country that didn’t have shrimp of any kind on the menu,” Clark says of his former, highly acclaimed establishment on False Creek. “We had to do that for two years until we found a sustainable product. And it is really one of the most sustainably harvested products in the world.”

Clark’s first taste of a B.C. spot prawn — a product certified by OceanWise — was from a fisherman affiliated with Johansen. The experience was such a revelation that he immediately said he had to have it on his menu. Days later, he went on a prawn boat with Johansen and they lamented the quandary of the seafood industry, which shipped most of its best products overseas to Asia to maximize revenue. They also conceived the idea for an event that would excite chefs, which was a must-do in order to sway fishing operators to sell locally. Confident anyone in the restaurant business would share his reaction once they tasted a high-quality spot prawn — not the late-season ones that were the leftovers from whatever wasn’t shipped to China — Clark pushed forward with Organic Ocean to create buzz for the festival. Among the early proponents was David Hawksworth, one of Canada’s most notable chefs. 

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Among the ways Hawksworth prepares its spot prawns is pan fried, served with heads on and topped with gremolata. (Adrian Brijbassi photo for Vacay.ca)

“They’re local, meaning we can get them at their freshest and best and they are sustainable but most of all utterly delicious — a delicate and mild flavour, great texture almost buttery — you don’t need to do much to them; lightly pan fry or sashimi style is hard to beat,” Hawksworth says.

While you’ll find the spot prawns served in many different ways, raw or lightly cooked is the preferred choice among chefs like Clark and Hawksworth. The idea of cooking live prawns may be off-putting to some connoisseurs, so the restaurants do the hard work. At Hawksworth’s eponymous restaurant, you’ll enjoy them lightly cooked with shells on or pan-fried with a gremolata topping. Other recipes you might find during spot-prawn season include bisques that use the empty shells for flavouring, salads topped with the crustaceans, and even a dish containing only the heads, which would be fried separately in a style found in Spain.

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Seagulls fly in the wake of the Organic Ocean fishing boat amid the moody mountain terrain of North Vancouver. (Adrian Brijbassi photo for Vacay.ca)

Although about 4 million pounds of spot prawns are harvested in B.C. each year, they are usually only on menus for about a month. The harvest season lasts approximately 35 days, wrapping up in mid-June. Local consumers can buy them directly from the dock for about $24 per pound (a steep change from $10 per pound in 2007). Increasingly, Johansen is seeing interest in frozen spot prawns, which he blast freezes at minus-40 Celsius degrees and seasons them before storing in containers at Organic Ocean. It’s a practice that allows lovers of the product to enjoy it throughout the year. 

For an item that was scoffed at less than two decades ago to find such endless demand is both a testament to the flavour of the B.C. spot prawn and the dedication of its advocates to promote it. 

“People have embraced it,” Johansen says. “It’s a good local organic sustainable product that tastes incredible. It was only a matter of time before demand exploded.”

MORE ABOUT ORGANIC OCEAN

Website: organicocean.com
Notable: Organic Ocean ships its frozen products in B.C. and eastwards to Quebec. You can purchase products online and schedule the delivery of your order. You’ll also find recipes from Clark and other notable Canadian chefs on the website.

Adrian is the editor of Vacay.ca and VacayNetwork.com. He also edited "Inspired Cooking", a nutrition-focused cookbook featuring 20 of Canada's leading chefs and in support of the cancer-fighting charity, InspireHealth. "Inspired Cooking" was created in honour of Adrian's late wife and Vacay.ca co-founder, Julia Pelish, who passed away of brain cancer in 2016. Adrian has won numerous awards for his travel writing, travel photography, and fiction, and has visited more than 55 countries. He is a former editor at the Toronto Star and New York Newsday, and was the social media and advocacy manager for Destination Canada. His articles have frequently appeared in the Huffington Post, Globe & Mail, and other major publications. He has appeared on national and local broadcasts, talking about travel, sports, creative writing and journalism. In 2019, he launched Trippzy, a travel-trivia app developed to educate consumers about destinations around the world.