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Spot Prawns Are the Slave-Free Shrimp of Canada

As reports come out that much of the shrimp in supermarkets are harvested by slave labour in Asia, British Columbia wants Canadians to turn to locally caught prawns.
Photos courtesy Karen Hamilton and Tyler Branston.

Few things are guaranteed to leave a bad taste in your mouth faster than discovering that your super-cheap prawn appie came to your plate by way of a Thai trawler full of enslaved fishermen.

A recent report in the Guardian linked the production of seafood in Asia with slaves forced to work at gunpoint, beaten daily, and in some unthinkably hideous cases, murdered after being "…tied, limb by limb, to the bows of four boats and pulled apart at sea." Those ultra cheap Thai prawns are then sold in leading supermarkets and restaurants around the world, landing on your plate with a pleasingly small price tag but an achingly high human cost.


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In the report, Aidan McQuade, director of Anti-Slavery International lays it on the line, saying "If you buy prawns or shrimp from Thailand, you will be buying the produce of slave labour."

But eating prawns doesn't have to be a source of shame. There's the sustainable BC spot prawn, caught with the benefit of zero guns, beatings, or human trafficking off Canadian waters. Oh, and they're so much more delicious.


Spot prawns in BC are caught in baited traps on lines that rest on the ocean's rocky bottom. The amount of bycatch is minuscule and there's no damage to the ocean floor, unlike bottom trawling. Egg-bearing females are released when caught and the length of the harvesting season, which starts in the next two weeks, is decided when the prawn population approaches an acceptable level.

Chef Ned Bell of YEW Seafood + Bar at the Four Seasons Vancouver wouldn't eat anything but. "I wouldn't eat a black tiger prawn to save my life. For years people have known they're the dirty birds of the ocean. They have a snappy sort of texture when you bite into them, it's like eating edible rubber. Spot prawns have a soft delicate bite when you eat them raw and they taste of the ocean, briny and sweet. When you lightly warm them or pan-sear or butter-poach them they become sexy and softer, they melt in your mouth."

I think people have to start to realize the true cost behind the dirt-cheap seafood that they are buying is human trafficking.


The absurd thing is that we've been sending spot prawns to Asia and importing shrimp instead. "For years almost all our spot prawns went overseas, and here we were in BC eating farmed tiger prawns, all exported." says Vancouver-based fisherman, Steve Johansen of Organic Ocean.

Frustrated by the situation, Johansen banded together with chef Robert Clark, who co-founded the Ocean Wise seafood conservation program with the Vancouver Aquarium, to create the annual Spot Prawn Festival to promote these local prawns in hopes that more Canadians would eat them. "The first year there were 300 people; last year there were 2,500," says Johansen. "People love the idea of a local sustainable seafood and these prawns are caught just six miles from Vancouver city centre. We supply to chefs in Calgary, Toronto, Ottawa and Montreal. I don't export any of my prawns anymore."

READ MORE: Stop Eating Seafood Out of Season

But are they as cheap and plentiful as the Thai prawns? Well, no. And therein lies the rub. "It's true that BC spot prawns will remain relatively niche and the cost will stay high due to the amount of effort associated with the fishery as well as the volume of the catch" says Theodora Geach, Ocean Wise seafood specialist at the Vancouver Aquarium. "I think people have to start to realize the true cost behind the dirt-cheap seafood that they are buying is human trafficking." And it's not just the sea-based prawns—the farmed shrimp in Thailand are equally problematic, "They use antibiotics and fungicides and these can have a serious impact on the environment," she says. "They clear-cut mangrove swamps for these farmed prawns, and after a few years of the chemicals, the ponds become sterile and nothing can grow there anymore."

"There's always going to be an export market for BC seafood," says Johansen, "It's promoted around the world as some of the very best and export sets the price. But more prawns stay home now than when we started the festival. It's about raising awareness and supporting your local day-boat fishermen. As a consumer or a chef, it's insane how expensive proteins are becoming, but for the guy out fishing it's not insane at all: they are finally getting rewarded for their efforts. You gotta think of the producers."

Bell says we need to start adjusting to the idea of simply eating smaller portions of shrimp and less often. "That's the conversation we need to be having right now. Maybe instead of having eight unsustainably fished prawns, you have four spectacular spot prawns instead, and fill the plate up with other things," he says. "It's shocking to think that slave labour exists, but I do believe in a global economy and I think we have to impress on our friends in Asia and do a better job with aquaculture. Then we can improve and have prawns in abundance. But I can't be the guy to tell people to stop eating things, I just think we're lucky we have choices."