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."
Instead of dragging nets, spot-prawn fishermen use round, washtub-sized traps that operate on the same principle as lobster pots.
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 good, but no cocktail shrimp will ever deliver the full shrimpy wallop and textural punch of its larger, 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. Where were 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 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.
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.
MORE ON SHRIMP:
Barry Estabrook: Rethinking Farmed Shrimp
Regina Charboneau: Winter Comfort Food
Kate Andersen: Searching for Shrimp Recipes
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 fish and shellfish 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.