King of shrimp? Queen of crustaceans? Or just a prawn?

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Special thanks to Publisher of The North Island Eagle, Kathy O’Reilly. Originally printed Friday, January 18th in The North Island Eagle.

When people think of the East Coast of Canada, images of lobsters are often conjured up. When people think of the West Coast, these crustacean visions are usually replaced with images of free, wild, and swimming salmon. Although extremely important to marine ecology and, in a weird delicate balance, also our West Coast economy, what often goes unmentioned and unnoticed is the shrimp fishery in BC.

That’s right – shrimp. What! Yep, until recently shrimp were kinda the ocean insects of the BC Coast (maybe even the world). But about ten years ago that started to change. With markets in Hong Kong, Japan, and other Asian countries receiving the bulk of the annual catch, the British Columbian public and pioneer BC Chefs (namely, Robert Clark and fisherman Steve Johansen) began to ramp up the export competition. An annual “spot prawn festival” was created in BC. In time the festival moved from a “craw-fish boil” style perception to a format where local West Coast dishes were prepared and marketed locally; with that the appreciation of BC Spot Prawns rose to the coveted status of “value added” seafood which was sold locally and internationally with a little more flare.

There are over 2,000 species of invertebrate shrimp in the world (meaning, they have no backbone). Come on, no backbone! It’s true, shrimp have no spine; which probably explains why cod, squid, flounders, salmon, halibut, and humans, are all considered natural predators of the shrimp. I suppose, it is sort of hard to defend yourself without even a basic spinal structure – hmmmm, just for the halibut we could say developing a spinal super structure is food for evolutionary thought (pun intended).

While we may be tempted to toss the presumed “insect” into a category of crustaceans that are less than important, in actuality shrimp are complex species who contribute immensely to marine ecology. Their endless engagement in sub-surface foraging and feasting activities help keep our oceans clean. A shrimp’s social structure is known to include activities like dancing to attract potential mates.

Although they may be in the same family and related closely to crabs and lobsters, there is a difference between “shrimp” and “prawns”.

First, prawns are bigger than shrimp. Second, prawns have 3 pairs of pinchers – shrimps have only two. Third, prawns don’t have a pronounced bend in their belly – the smaller shrimps do. Fourth, and really importantly, prawns release their eggs directly into the water instead of brooding over them like shrimp do.

In BC, the most coveted species of shrimp that is commercially harvested is the spot shrimp “prawn” (although this is largely due to recent value added marketing initiatives of the species as a seafood delicacy).

Most spot prawns (i.e., Pandalus platyceros) spend roughly the first two years as male and then depending on length and size they can transform into females. For all our progressive readers out there, how’s that for gender equality! With a short life span of only four to five years, these crustaceans don’t have time to waste.

The spot prawn is redish brown in clolour with white horizontal stripes on their head and white spots on their “tail” (that is the part you like to eat). But it’s not actually their tail; it’s their abdomen muscle which has five segments. The spots are on the first and fifth segments. They also have five pairs of legs used for swimming, walking, and feeding. Spot prawns like to eat plankton, algae, worms, smaller shrimp, and mollusks. At night they go into shallow areas to find food and during day in deeper water to avoid predators. They live in muddy and rocky sea floor areas.

Some say that the BC spot prawn fishery is more sustainable than in the United States because Canada requires live females with eggs to be thrown back into the ocean if captured; thereby supporting further egg disbursement within the waters and hopefully greater hatching numbers.

Having said all that, the spot prawn is not the only shrimpy catch along the BC Coast. If you’re from the Island you’ve probably seen (and most likely eaten) Sidestripe Shrimp (Pandalopsis dispar, also called jumbo or giant shrimp and just a bit smaller than the prawn), and Ocean Pink Shrimp (Pandalus jordani, “pinkies”). Other species in the mainland and southern islands include Dock Shrimp (Pandalus danae, sometimes called “coonstripe”), Spiny Pink Shrimp (Pandalus borealis), and King Shrimp (Pandalus hypsinotus, although the “King” shrimp is substantially smaller than a prawn and side stripe).

Well, there it is, the King shrimp is actually not the biggest shrimp in the sea and the Prawn might actually be a Queen depending on its length and age. Takes a minute to wrap the old thinker around that one! If you are out this winter “prawning” as North Islanders do, remember, all stages of life cycles can be found year round but be extra careful between October and March due to egg bearing females in the winter season.

Bryce Casavant is a former BC Conservation Officer. He is currently a Doctoral Candidate at Royal Roads University and writes for the Eagle from his home on Vancouver Island.

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