Spot prawn industry under threat after DFO regulation change, small local harvesters say

·3 min read
Spot prawns being sold at Fisherman's Wharf in Vancouver's False Creek on June 7, 2020. (Dan Burritt/CBC - image credit)
Spot prawns being sold at Fisherman's Wharf in Vancouver's False Creek on June 7, 2020. (Dan Burritt/CBC - image credit)

Spot prawn season is still a few months away, but a change by the Department of Fisheries and Oceans has some harvesters worried the celebrated B.C. fishery — and a large part of their livelihood — is about to be wiped out.

Sonia Strobel, CEO of Skipper Otto Community Supported Fishery, says DFO's surprise decision to make the sale of frozen-at-sea spot prawns illegal will effectively stop the sale of all frozen spot prawns to Canadian markets.

"It really came as a shock to us, an absolute shock," said Strobel. "We thought there must be a misunderstanding."

For decades, small scale harvesters have frozen tubs of spot prawns in salt water while still at sea to preserve them for transport to local markets.

But the practice is now outlawed, because DFO says on-board inspectors need the prawns to be readily available for measuring to ensure they meet size regulations. Previously, inspectors measured prawns as they were being sorted.

James Lawson, a prawn harvester from Heiltsuk First Nation, says the sudden change is baffling because it takes mere minutes to thaw a tub of frozen prawns.

"Every boat out there has a deck hose. Almost every boat has a hot water kettle," he said. "The answer is that simple."

Spot prawns are a celebrated local food in B.C.
Spot prawns are a celebrated local food in B.C. (CBC)

Unlike the smaller operators, large-scale processors who serve the export market have the expensive equipment necessary to flash freeze prawns individually.

Lawson says without the ability to freeze prawns in tubs, harvesters like him will be forced to sell their catch to the big guys who already control much of the market and aren't alway inclined to pay a fair price.

Last year, for example, Lawson said local and direct-to-consumer outlets paid $15 per pound for spot prawns, while industrial processors paid between $4 and $11 per pound, depending on the size.

"This is really cutting us off at the knees for financial viability," he said. "This new interpretation is going to shoehorn us into strictly an export market and will cut us off from our local markets ... And the public just loves the product."

In an emailed statement, the office of Fisheries and Oceans Minister Bernadette Jordan said enforcing size limits within the commercial prawn fishery is critical in ensuring sustainability.

"We are aware of the importance of the 'tubbing' practice to some harvesters, particularly given the challenges the industry faces with weakened international markets as a result of the COVID-19 pandemic," says the statement.

"I want to assure commercial harvesters we take their concerns very seriously. We will work collaboratively with industry this season on these changes and ensure harvesters have the support they need now, while working toward a long-term solution."

Strobel wonders why prawns are being targeted when other seafood processed in a similar manner isn't.

"There are other products — like hake, for example, on factory vessels — that are frozen and blocked. To thaw a block of frozen hake would take much much longer," she said.

"It would be a real shame if our government enabled a shift in the industry to put, again, more money into the hands of big corporations, taking it out of the hands of independent small scale and indigenous harvesters."