Almost offhandedly, Tommy Pearson points across the ocean toward the horizon: “Look at all those birds, must be some dolphins coming.” Sure enough, a couple of minutes later we’re in the midst of a pod that seems a quarter-mile across. It’s an awesome sight, hundreds of dolphins arching through the waves.
But Pearson doesn’t slow down. He’s on his way to work, and this is just another sight on his daily commute. That’s what life is like when your office is at the edge of the continental shelf and you get there by boat.
At 45, Pearson has spent his whole life on the water. It’s the only work he’s ever done. And right now, the one thing on his mind is spot prawns.
Few things excite Southern California seafood lovers like spot prawns. Their shells are a pale orange that seems to glow from within, and their snow-white flesh is as firm and sweet as lobster.
Saute them with butter and garlic and some halved cherry tomatoes, strap them in a grill basket and give them a few minutes over an open flame, bake them in salt . . . with an ingredient this good, you don’t need to do much to make a great meal.
But spot prawns are a crustacean with a complicated story. In the first place, despite their size, they’re not really prawns; they’re shrimp. And let’s not even get into a discussion of their sex lives.
One of the best places to buy spot prawns is Pearson’s Port, the seafood shop Tommy and his wife, Terese, run in Newport Harbor. She manages the store while he stocks it. They are the second generation of Pearsons to man the Port. He started his waterman’s career crewing for his dad, Roy, while his mom, Vi, ran the store.
From the outside, Pearson’s Port certainly doesn’t look like a treasure trove -- it’s basically a one-room shanty at the end of a short pier (when they say it’s “in” Newport Harbor, that’s what they mean). But the store’s interior is ringed with live tanks full of the bounty Pearson brings home from the sea.
Buying spot prawns while they are still alive and kicking (no hyperbole here) is the key to quality. Almost immediately after they die, an enzyme in the prawn’s head spreads through the body and starts to turn the flesh to mush.
The prawns are kept alive in tanks of chilled oxygenated water that look like big aquariums. Aside from Asian groceries and a few small seafood specialty markets, you’ll hardly ever find anyone selling spot prawns.
But at Pearson’s Port, the year is divided into two seasons: Spiny lobster in the fall and winter, and spot prawns in the spring and summer.
Tough to trap
While spinys live in water shallow enough that they can be taken by free divers, spot prawns are much tougher to catch. They inhabit the deep canyons and cracks of the continental shelf, generally between 600 and 1,000 feet below the surface of the sea, a couple of miles off the coast.
That’s where Pearson is headed now in his fishing boat, the Harvest. Actually, the term “fishing boat” is a bit overblown. At 26 feet, the Harvest is no bigger than a good-sized motorboat, smaller than the dinghies on some of the yachts in Newport Harbor.
But it’s big enough to do the job, if only barely. Pearson catches spot prawns in traps, 12 of them strung together on 3,600-foot-long ropes. When a string of traps is stacked on the back of the boat, there’s just enough room left on board to turn around.
The traps themselves are round and about 3 feet across, made of stiff black plastic mesh. On either side are funnel-shaped openings that allow the shrimp to enter, but not escape.
In the center is a container for bait -- Pearson prefers Friskies brand “Salmon Dinner” cat food. More traditional baits such as chopped-up fish attract too many octopuses, he says, and they scare the shrimp away. Friskies seems to have a more limited appeal, and he keeps cases of it stored in the small compartment below deck.
Pearson and deckhand Spencer Frohling make a smooth team. Pearson pilots the boat alongside one of the reddish orange plastic buoys that mark the end of the line of traps, and Frohling snags it with a gaff. Pearson threads the bright yellow rope through a hydraulic winch and begins to wind.
When a trap comes up, it’s hoisted aboard and quickly emptied. Any prawns are picked out by hand and dropped in an ice-water well in the middle of the deck. Fresh water is constantly pumped over the well to keep it oxygenated and cooled to about 40 degrees.
Most everything else in the traps -- sea urchins, small fish and miscellaneous unidentified invertebrates Pearson calls “blobs” -- is tossed back into the ocean. He stows any octopuses he catches in the thermal sleeve around the well; he says some elderly Italians come by the store to buy them.
After the prawns have been collected, the process reverses as Frohling and Pearson heave the traps one at a time off the back of the boat. This, Pearson says, is one of the crucial parts of spot prawn fishing: judging the current so the traps play out in a line rather than being pushed into a stack.
Pearson uses a combination of GPS and sonar to try to drop the traps on hard sea floor at a depth of between 600 and 900 feet. The best areas tend to be on the up-current edges of canyons, where the water wells up from the deep, bringing with it food.
Though we call them Santa Barbara spot prawns, they actually live up and down the entire West Coast. In fact, in Northern California they have the effrontery to call them “Monterey Bay spot prawns,” though the fishery there is quite small.
Most California spot prawns are caught in the Santa Barbara Channel, around the Channel Islands and in points south, including the Newport Canyon area where Pearson is fishing.
The richest waters in the Southern California fishery are out by the islands, but that requires a bigger boat than the Harvest, one that can handle 25 to 50 traps on a single string in order to offset the extra gas used.
Spot prawns are only one of several varieties of California shrimp. Besides the colorfully named coonstripe and humpy shrimps, there is a very delicious small shrimp called the ridgeback. Ridgebacks are sweeter and crisper than spot prawns, which tend to be more meaty and lobster-like.
You’ll almost never see any ridgebacks today, even though there were more of them caught than spot prawns as recently as 2003. They’ve all but disappeared from the market due to ocean conditions and restrictions on trawling.
Ironically, according to marine biologists, spot prawns aren’t really prawns, they are shrimp, while ridgeback shrimp, despite their small size, are true prawns. (Although cooks tend to call all large shrimp prawns, biologists say the real difference is that shrimp [family caridea] have small side flaps that overlap on the first through third abdominal segments while prawns [family penaeidea] have first and second anterior segments that are about the same size.)
That is only one of several curious facets of spot prawn biology. Even stranger, the little guys are what scientists call protandric hermaphrodites. That means they all are born males, reaching sexual maturity and going through one spawning cycle that way. Then in their fourth year they turn into females and mate one or two times more.
Spot prawns spawn from September through November and bear eggs from October through April. Fishing is controlled by a complicated set of regulations, but for the most part it closes down from November through January to protect the hatch. Still, early in the spring you’ll sometimes find spot prawns bejeweled with thousands of bright orange eggs clinging to their little swimmerets. Though beautiful, this roe doesn’t have much flavor.
The California spot prawn fishery began in the 1930s, when the prawns were accidentally caught in octopus traps. It was a decidedly minor catch for decades and was only officially recognized as separate from other California shrimp in 1979 (a measly 38 tons that year brought fishermen only a bit more than $2 a pound).
Back then, most of California’s spot prawn catch came from trawlers that scraped the bottom with nets, taking not only the shrimp but many other fish including rockfish. Bycatch (the fishery term for what you accidentally catch when you’re fishing for something else) on the trawlers ran as high as 7 1/2 pounds of fish for every pound of prawns. Rockfish alone outweighed the prawns by 2 to 1.
Fishing with traps began in the 1980s, and that really kicked off the prawn rush. The live shrimp fetched premium prices from Asian markets both domestically and overseas. Today, about 95% of spot prawns are sold alive. The rest are frozen and sold at a much lower price.
In the late 1990s, when the rockfish population became threatened, the trawlers came under scrutiny and in 2003, trawler spot prawn fishing was outlawed altogether.
The catch plummeted from a high of more than 375 tons in 1998 to about 75 tons in 2003. But the value to the fishermen increased dramatically, from about $6.75 a pound to almost $10 a pound in the same period. Today there are only 30 fishermen in the state licensed to catch spot prawns, and they earn $11 to $12 a pound.
Of course, the shrimp will cost you a bit more than that, in large part due to the effort required to keep them alive. Retail prices this spring have varied from about $13 to $19 a pound, which is what they run at Pearson’s Port.
Weighing a day’s work
Tommy Pearson works hard to earn that money. And there’s quite a bit of luck involved too. In the first string he pulls up this morning, only one trap out of 12 has much in the way of spots. The rest are either full of urchins or hold just a single prawn -- “onesies,” he calls them.
The second and third strings are even worse. Because of the high cost of fuel, Pearson figures he needs to clear $300 a trip just to break even. That amounts to 15 pounds of prawns, and it’s starting to look doubtful he’ll get them. On a good day, he’s caught as much as 120 pounds.
Then on the fourth string, he hits pay dirt. At first, there are just a few prawns in each trap, but in the middle of the string there are three traps that are at least one-third full, a bonanza considering how the morning’s fishing has been going.
Pearson’s got another set of strings several miles away, but today he decides he’s caught enough that he can afford to cut work short and head for the harbor. His daughter is being honored for her academics at a school assembly, and he wants to be there.
It’s been an OK day in what has up to now been a slow spring, he says, probably 20 pounds of prawns.
Pearson ties up on the dock right beside the store. He scoops the prawns out of the well with a nylon net and empties them into a white plastic pail. Then he carries the pail around the corner and dumps the prawns into the live tank.
It’s an amazing thing: Less than two hours ago, these prawns were chilling in the Pacific at nearly 1,000 feet deep; in another couple of hours, they’ll be warming in a skillet.
For Tommy Pearson, it’s just another day at work.