Editor’s note: Writer Yvette Cardozo, gives us such a wonderfully-detailed account of prawn fishing in Victoria British Columbia, we feel like we were right there with her! Be sure to scroll down to see two ceviche recipes Yvette was able to get for our readers.
I’ve just found the world’s fittest athletes… Commercial prawn fishermen.
I don’t know what I expected on the commercial fishing boat Nordic Rand, but a nonstop whirlwind of frenzied activity wasn’t it. Not many outsiders get to follow their food from the bottom of the ocean to their plate. When the invite came, I said, “Absolutely, yes.”
So at (urg) 5am one May morning, I showed up at the dock on British Columbia’s Vancouver Island and discovered, um, you need to be an athlete just to get aboard. It was several feet down to the top of the railing. One of the guys grabbed a handle, swung out and landed, deftly, in the squeeze of empty space between bins and assorted equipment. For me, the boat pushed off, came around and picked me up at the public dock where all I had to do was swing my leg over the side. Whew.
Breakfast was a huge pan of scrambled eggs strewn with lots of cheese and whatnot along with an entire cookie sheet of bacon. For four guys. I soon learned why they chowed down so heartily.
The Nordic Rand runs half a dozen “long lines” — sturdy half-mile long ropes, each holding 50 four-foot, disk-shaped traps. All these are let out, left for a day, then reeled in and emptied. They do this every day, non-stop, sun up till sundown, for the duration of the season, which this year ran early May through early June.
We started with a quick lesson on prawns vs. shrimp. They are NOT the same thing, though for the average person, it’s a bit of splitting hairs (or really, claws). Prawns have claws on three of their five pairs of legs, shrimp have claws on two of their five pairs of legs. Prawns are longer and their tails are noticeably larger. As far as eating them goes, they taste and cook the same. We motored out for about an hour, found the end of the trap line, loaded it onto the spooler and started reeling in the traps.
And the fun began. It’s a whirlwind of flying spray and prawns. While Capt. James Simpson on the back deck reloaded the traps with bait … a mash of fish parts and fish food that went into hanging sleeves … Bryar Lang stood at the rail, clipping the coffee table size traps onto the line.
When that line was loaded and spooled out, it was time to pull another line up.
Traps were hauled aboard, emptied into a tray, then passed on to Simpson on the back deck who stacked the traps. By the end, the traps were stacked eight to ten high, waiting to be reloaded and redropped into the ocean. Each trap, loaded with its catch, probably weighed 50 pounds, by the way.
As for the tray, it was covered mostly not in prawns but shells holding hundreds of hermit crabs and assorted sea life. So Lang and his buddies Simon Winterburn and Kyle Plensky were now shoveling shells back into the ocean, along with the occasional fish and, at one point, a basket star bigger than a frisbee.
Okay, then the rest of the work started. While Simpson on the back deck was reloading bait, the guy at the tray tossed prawns into separate bins by size. Those went into baskets, then into a vat of fresh water with a glazing dip so they would keep their pink color. And then they went into boxes, which were weighed and dropped into a huge freezer below decks which, amazingly, can go down to 55 below zero and flash freezes the catch. Each trap can be emptied once a day and each day they can bring in anywhere from 500 to 1,000 lbs of prawns.
As for the season, Simpson explained that an inspector comes periodically on board to sample the prawns. “If you’re catching only young, small ones, it’s time to close the season. Nobody wants to catch the small ones … there’s no money in it and it’s not good for the stock.” And the rest of the year? Tuna and halibut in summer, sablefish in winter, Simpson said.
Now it was time to eat. At my friend Laurie’s house, we had cold prawns and homemade cocktail sauce (ketchup, worcestershire, horseradish, a splash of lemon juice, a splash of tabasco). And then to Little Jumbo, a cozy restaurant near Victoria’s waterfront.
Chef Gabe Fayerman-Hansen whipped up prawn ceviche over an avocado mousse. The prawns were silky soft and you could actually taste the individual ingredients … the mild, grassy bite of cilantro, the tang of ginger, the garlic, even a hint of the basil and, of course, the vinegar and lime. Yes, my tongue is almost dripping as I type this. The entree was prawns tempura. The batter was light and crisp and seasoned just enough for character but not so much as to overpower the sweet ocean taste of prawns that had been swimming that very morning.
During prawn season, Chef Gabe runs prawns at Little Jumbo as a special feature. And this year, he was the chef at the FAS (Finest At Sea) headquarters/retail store cooking prawns and handing them out to the public.
The day I left to fly back to Seattle, I stopped in at the FAS fish counter and loaded up on smoked tuna and salmon “candy,” but not before taking a picture of the display, where you could see signs telling you not only what the fish was but how it was processed and what boat brought it in.
If you go:
For Americans, it is okay to bring smoked fish (and meat) back into the US.
FAS (Finest At Sea) hosts free BBQs at their office/retail shop in Victoria celebrating the various fishing seasons including prawns, salmon, tuna, halibut, sablefish and more. Then once a month, they have a dinner where one of their fishing boat captains comes to talk about commercial fishing. To close the prawn season in June, Capt. James Simpson described what his boat does and brought one of his traps. The four course dinner that month featured prawns and was $90 Cdn. Reservations for future dinners can be made through the FAS website or calling (250)383-7760.
Prawn Ceviche – courtesy Chef Gabe Fayerman-Hansen of Little Jumbo in Victoria
Ripe Avocados – 6 each, rough dice
Limes – 3 each, zest and juice
Mirin – to taste (Japanese sweet rice wine)
Salt – to taste
- Combine all ingredients in a mixing bowl, giving a rough fold with a spatula to combine.
- Transfer in batches to blender, puree until smooth. Taste for salt, and acid/sweet balance.
Spot Prawn Ceviche
Fresh Spot Prawns – 16 each, peeled and tail meat reserved
Shallot – 1 each, minced
Ginger – 2” piece, peeled and minced
Garlic – 4 cloves, minced
Basil – 2 oz, chopped
Cilantro – 2 oz, chopped
Lime – 4 each, zested and juiced
Mirin – 3 oz (Japanese sweet rice wine)
Jalapeno – 2 each, seeded and minced
Salt and pepper – to taste
- Roughly chop tail meat of prawns, and combine with all other ingredients. Allow to marinate for 20-30 minutes. Serve chilled.