Shrimp were my first luxury food. Once or twice a year, my father would take me to his country club for lunch, and I’d order a shrimp salad—a half-dozen, bright orange jumbos hooked over the rim of a glass bowl above a bed of crushed ice.
Skip ahead more years than I care to count, and it’s become all but impossible for an unabashed shrimp lover to indulge and still maintain a clear ecological conscience. Nearly 90 percent of the shrimp we eat come from Asia, and most are farmed in fetid pools (“sewage lagoons,” in the words of a commercial shrimp fisherman). The practice is environmentally destructive, and too often the shrimp themselves arrive at our shores laced with antibiotics and other illegal chemicals. The Monterey Bay Aquarium’s Seafood Watch program rates them as “Avoid.”
Unfortunately, most of the other shrimp available also fall short in one way or another. The little cocktail shrimp from the Northeast and Northwest are “Best” choices from an environmental point of view, and perfectly delicious, but no cocktail shrimp will ever deliver the full shrimpy wallop and textural punch of its more robust cousins. Sustainably farmed shrimp also merit a “Best” rating, but the ones I’ve had are sadly devoid of taste.
I prefer wild American shrimp, a Seafood Watch “Good Alternative.” But they have the drawback of bycatch—the technical term for immature fish and other unwanted aquatic creatures that are unintentionally caught in the huge nets and thrown overboard. I’ll never forget the first time I saw a shrimper from South Carolina empty his nets onto the deck. We had been dragging them across the bottom for about two hours. When the crewman swung the net over a counter on the stern, a slimy avalanche of what seemed to be formless aquatic protoplasm spewed forth. My first reaction was, Where are the shrimp? Jellyfish predominated, but there were also crabs, rays, starfish, immature sharks, spadefish, flounder, silver eels, mackerel, and whiting—dozens of species and all dead. The crew had to pick through the mass to extract a few pails of shrimp. It was hard to convince myself that by the standards of the shrimp dragging industry, the U. S. fishery’s bycatch ratio is far better than most.
But one shrimp has it all: the spot prawn caught off the coast of British Columbia. The species is big, luscious, and caught in a completely sustainable manner. Its only drawback is that Canadians have recently awakened to these virtues, and devour most of the catch before it can be exported beyond the borders.
So earlier this month, I leapt at the opportunity to go out with some spot-prawn fishermen on an outing that coincided with Seaweb’s annual Seafood Summit, which drew 700 scientists, environmentalists, and folks from the fishing industry to Vancouver, BC, to talk about sustainability.
A half dozen of us set out from downtown Vancouver one morning aboard a boat owned by Steve Johansen, whose company, Organic Ocean, sells a variety of wild Pacific seafood to restaurants and retailers. The weather was perfect—calm seas, clear skies, brisk but not bone-chilling temperatures—and I began to suspect that residents of the Pacific Northwest fib about their dreary winter weather just so the rest of us all don’t pick up and move out there. We motored past anchored freighters and tankers into the Strait of Georgia, the city’s skyline and its backdrop of snowy mountains behind us. Bald eagles soared and curious seals poked their heads above the water to stare as we passed.
We stopped at an orange buoy floating at the base of a cliff. Commercial wild shrimp fishermen in the Gulf of Mexico and Southeastern United States drag gigantic nets for miles across the bottom in shallow waters, incurring bycatch and destroying seabed habitat. The water below us was nearly 500 feet deep. Instead of dragging nets, spot-prawn fishermen use round, washtub-sized traps that operate on the same principle as lobster pots—prawns are lured in by containers of fishmeal and are unable to get out.
The first trap that Frank Keitsch, Johansen’s crewman, hauled aboard was full of lively, tail-snapping spot-prawns, which look exactly like shrimp with a few white spots on their reddish brown heads, and absolutely nothing else. Taking the no-bycatch ethic one step further, Keitsch picked up the prawns one by one, turned them on their backs, and pulled back their tails. Any that carried eggs were put back in the ocean, alive and frisky. The second trap did have bycatch—a single Pacific cod with a stomach so distended that it looked like it had bloated. Keitsch pried open its mouth. Several pairs of spot-prawn antennae protruded from its gullet. The cod was released none the worse for the wear—unless cod can suffer from acute indigestion. One other trap contained a similarly well-fed three-foot in diameter Pacific octopus that was dropped overboard and disappeared, leaving a cloud of brownish “ink” in its trail.
Commercial spot prawn season doesn’t begin until the shrimp are finished spawning in May. During the two-month season, fishermen are allowed to put down 300 traps. In the off-season, they can set four traps for recreational use. Johansen and Keitsch’s efforts that morning would have provided a nice dinner for a dozen. Boiled for less than a minute, spot prawns have a faint lobster taste and softer texture than Gulf of Mexico shrimp. But most of the prawns that morning never made it to a pot of boiling water. Keitsch removed the heads with a quick twist and the rest of us attacked the tails.
Shrimp sashimi, direct from the ocean and accompanied by no guilt whatsoever. Not a bad breakfast at all.