Wild Alaskan Spot Prawns: The Lobster of Alaska
The Spot Prawn (pandalus platyceros) is not actually a prawn at all, but a very large and tasty shrimp native to the West Coast of North America. Often referred to by their regional origins, they can be called “California Spot Prawns,” “British Columbia Spot Prawns,” etc. We happen to think that our own “Alaskan Spot Prawns,” the northernmost variety that we pull from the frigid waters of the Gulf of Alaska, are by far the best!
Spot Prawns have a fascinating life cycle that is characterized by a few significant transitions – one of which is changing from male to female mid-life! They begin as fertilized eggs, and after 4-5 months of being carried under the female’s abdomen, the Spot Prawn eggs hatch into tiny larvae that suspend in the water column for 3 months. Here they feed on tiny diatoms until they decend to the bottom and morph into a more traditional “shrimp” shape. Most interestingly, all Spot Prawns at this stage are 100% male. They grow their first year, and mate as males at ages 1 and 2. Continually increasing in size, most Spot Prawns transform from male to female in year 3 – after which they start carrying eggs. The average lifespan of a Spot Prawn is 4-5 years, so a Spot Prawn will spend roughly half of its life as male, half as female. This biological strategy is unusual, but it ensures that the largest of the Spot Prawns carry the eggs, increasing their numbers and chances for survival.
Once grown up large enough for us to worry about, our Wild Alaskan Spot Prawns are sustainably harvested in small traps, or pots, by the local small-boat fleet in strictly managed fishing areas around Southeast Alaska. Pot fishing is by far the most ecologically friendly way to catch Spot Prawns. Common methods used elsewhere, such as the very destructive bottom trawling, involve large boats dragging nets on the ocean’s bottom with heavy weights along the leading edge – called a “footrope.” This footrope mows over everything it contacts, and scares prawns up off the bottom and into the net trailing just behind. Bottom trawling is damaging to the environment in most cases, and is not allowed in the Wild Alaskan Spot Prawn fishery we participate in.
Our fishery uses small pots that are limited in size and volume. The pots most commonly used are round bottomed and only 39” in diameter. These pots are baited with scraps from the carcasses of fish we caught earlier in the year. Reusing these carcass scraps is part of the regenerative ethos that Catch Sitka has – nothing goes to waste. Black cod and coho salmon frames are the two most frequently used in our areas. We bait them with a generous amount of scraps, then set them out on “strings.” A pot string is a ground line that the pot is clipped onto and thrown overboard with, to start sinking. The boat moves through the water while setting, so the groundline is pulled overboard with the pots that are clipped onto it. Depending on the type of area being fished, and the size of the boat, the pots are usually run out in strings 5-10 pots long. A large buoy is attached to the end of the line, and then thrown overboard. The pots sink to the bottom, the buoy remains on the surface, and the delicious little critters start finding their way into the pots. We typically check the pots once a day, re-bait and reset, until the season is over.
The Spot Prawns retained are immediately processed by “heading” – simply separating the heads from the delectable tails. The tails are then sent below into the hold individually flash frozen in a -40F blast freezer on the boat. They are rock-solid in a matter of minutes. This extremely fast freezing method preserves the texture and flavor that the Wild Alaskan Spot Prawn is so well known for.
Wild Alaskan Spot Prawns are the darlings of chefs up and down the West Coast. While available year-round due to the blast freezing process (while supplies last, that is!), the Spot Prawn is mostly found on the menus of many white-table cloth restaurants while in-season. Chefs really appreciate the burst of sweet flavor and delicate mouth feel of these crustaceans. Spot Prawns are at their best in dishes that highlight their distinctive flavor profile, and are often featured as an entrée either quickly seared in a hot skillet with vegetables or in a light sauce pasta dish. They are very versatile and never fail to impress.
One of the best things about getting Wild Alaskan Spot Prawns is that there are plenty of tails that come loaded with eggs (roe)! If preparing a shell-on dish, the eggs soak up the juices in the pan and make for a seriously delectable treat on the table. If that isn’t what the diner prefers, a chef can remove and save the eggs (and shells, too, if preparing a shelled dish) for reduction later to make an amazing shrimp stock. The fats, oils, and essence that render out of the eggs and shells after a long simmer make for some of the best soup base imaginable. Colorful and packed with flavor, any soup or stew would benefit from the addition of Alaskan Spot Prawn stock!
When you choose to purchase your Alaskan Spot Prawns from Catch Sitka, you are making a choice to support a sustainable fishery that is conducted by small-boat fishing families in the wilderness of Southeast Alaska. Yes, they do cost more than the flavor-challenged farmed prawns raised in chemical baths in Viet Nam – but the culinary experience is unmatched and you can enjoy your meal even more knowing that your dollars are going directly to the small Alaskan communities where the Wild Alaskan Spot Prawns are harvested.