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the dish

It may be spot prawn season, but not all Vancouver chefs are biting this year. Spooked by drastic price increases, restaurateurs are serving much less – in some cases none – of the local celebrity crustaceans.

"They're outrageously priced," said Frank Pabst, executive chef of Blue Water Cafe + Raw Bar, the city's most widely acclaimed seafood restaurant. "I don't even have them in house. I refuse to pay $18 a pound. That's 50 per cent more than last year. I might as well buy lobster. It's cheaper."

Similar to the price for Dungeness crab, which has doubled, overseas demand is driving the high cost.

"The buyers set the price," explained Rob Clark, owner of The Fish Counter seafood shop and café. Working on behalf of large seafood companies in Japan and China, the buyers show up on the dock on the fishery's opening day and haggle for the lowest price possible.

But when the season opened last week, the buyers offered to pay more than usual, likely because a disease called Early Mortality Syndrome has decimated Asia's farm-raised tiger prawn industry. "Someone, somewhere else in the world is saying 'We want this much,' and all the buyers are scrambling to get it," Mr. Clark said.

Fishermen who want to support the local market are caught in a Catch-22. Their deckhands get a share of the take. If the boat in the next berth is selling to wholesalers and offering more money, the workers (or subcontractors) will jump ship.

"We've kept our prices as low as possible," said Steve Johansen of Organic Ocean, which is selling live prawns at the False Creek Fishermen's Wharf for $17 a pound, a dollar less than last week. Last year, they sold for $14 to $15 a pound. "I believe we're the lowest in town."

That's no consolation to local chefs, who are paying the same as the public. (Restaurants typically receive a lower wholesale price.)

"It's getting out of hand," said Angus An, Maenam owner and executive chef, who took them off his menu after the opening week. "As much as I love the product, we can't serve spot prawns at $45 when our most expensive dish is $19. I can't even afford to eat them at home."

It wasn't supposed to be like this. Eight years ago, wild B.C. spot prawns became the hometown hero. Although fished in local waters since time immemorial, these large, sweet, firmly fleshed crustaceans were almost all exported to Asia. Aside from the odd sport fisherman, few people knew about the gems in our sea.

According to legend, Mr. Clark was out on Mr. Johansen's boat one day and spied a trap of spot prawn lovelies. "I want some of those," the then executive chef of C Restaurant said. "You can't have them," Mr. Johansen replied. They were all being exported to Asia.

Enter the Chefs' Table Society of B.C. With the help of Organic Ocean, it created Vancouver's first day-boat spot industry. For the first time in memorable history, regular customers could wander down to the dock and buy local spot prawns live off the boat. The Spot Prawn Festival was established to raise awareness.

Everyone was hooked – even Torontonians, who are now paying $35 a pound for fresh spot prawns (but perhaps not for much longer). "Instead of bringing in 100 or 200 pounds as in years past, we're now taking 20 or 30 pounds," said Kristin Donovan, owner of Toronto's Hooked fish shop.

"Are we a victim of our own success?" asked Scott Jaeger, executive chef of Burnaby's Pear Tree Restaurant and president of the Chef's Table Society. "Perhaps we should have been a little greedier. But how can we argue? Sustainable fishermen are making a living."

Next: 10 Vancouver restaurants where diners can still get spot prawns