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Sticky tentacles don't last long when spot prawns at stake

Spot prawns pour out of a prawn trap caught in the waters of the George Strait in the Discovery Islands, May 30, 2012.

John Lehmann/John Lehman/The Globe and Mail

Paul Bevandick presses a 12-inch butcher knife against the flesh of a rival who has been stealing his catch. With a swift sawing motion, the captain and owner of the Bella Donna II calmly decapitates the massive octopus.

On Canada's West Coast, spot prawning is literally a cutthroat business.

The prawn bandit has squeezed into one of Mr. Bevandick's 300 traps scattered around the Discovery Islands and spent the night gorging on the succulent shellfish caught in the nylon netting. Husks that were once filled with sweet, tender prawn flesh are all that remain.

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All morning, Mr. Bevandick and his two deckhands have been returning other octopi found in the traps back to the ocean floor. But they decide this one is simply too large and too ravenous to let continue feeding on their prized catch. They kill the octopus and will eat or sell its meat.

B.C. spot prawns are, in some ways, Canada's version of the soft-shell crabs caught on the U.S. East Coast: a rare and highly prized seafood delicacy whose season lasts less than two months each year. For spot prawn fisherman, catching the crustaceans is an exercise in skill, intuition and plain old luck.

Only 252 vessels in B.C. are licensed to fish for spot prawns commercially. During May and most of June, the boats and their crews spend seven days a week on the water engaged in a daily battle to outwit each other and find the best spots to set their traps.

Named for the distinctive white spots on their tails, spot prawns have long been prized in Asia for their sweet and briny flavour and a melt-in-the-mouth texture that most gourmands believe is far superior to more rubbery shrimp. Mr. Bevandick used to freeze his entire catch at sea to be shipped to Japan. Only in the past five years have consumers in B.C. and the rest of Canada caught on and created a domestic market for spot prawns.

On the water, competition is fierce. Mr. Bevandick says that during the 17 years he's been fishing for prawns, he's had his lines cut and his traps stolen by rival fishermen. He complains about other boats "crowding" his lines and setting traps too close. "You'd think there'd be more gentlemanly rules," he says.

Still, the captain of the Bella Donna II is more of a peacemaker than an aggressor. He says that by being friendly with his competitors, he's gathered plenty of information about the best ways and places to fish for the elusive prawns, which live anywhere between 10 and 80 metres below the surface.

"It's amazing what I've learned over the years just by listening," he says. "People like to talk and they tell you things."

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When the fishing is good, it's a lucrative business. According to the industry lobby and trade group, called the Pacific Prawn Fishermen's Association, the gross value of the spot prawn fishery is between $40-million and $45-million a year. Mr. Bevandick says the going rate for a commercial spot prawn licence is about $500,000.

Last year, he leased a licence from another boat that allowed him to set another 250 traps a day, in addition to his own 300. He's glad he didn't do it again this year, because so far it's been a slow season for spot prawn. "Volume is down quite a bit. It could be down 30 per cent to 40 per cent this year," he says.

Today, however, under light rain and cloudy skies with a school of dolphins "bow-running" alongside the boat, the fishing is excellent. By 9:30 a.m., the crew of the Bella Donna II has hauled in about 200 pounds of spot prawns – often an entire day's catch – from just two sets of traps. (Each set or "string" has 50 traps). This will turn out to be the boat's best day of the season, so far.

"This is extraordinary," says Mr. Bevandick, who speaks in slow, measured tones and resembles a beefy Richard Gere.

As each trap is pulled to the surface, its contents are dumped onto a sorting table. One of the deckhands throws any fish or by-catch over the side and slides the spot prawns into a basket resting below a hole in the table. The other deckhand then baits each trap using a combination of frozen pilchard (a sardine-like fish) and feed pellets used in salmon farming and neatly stacks the traps in piles of seven.

Then begins the crucial step of resetting the traps on the ocean floor. Watching a computer monitor plotting the location and water depth, the captain manoeuvres the boat in a wiggly zigzag pattern, calling out to the deckhands when to drop the traps. Once the string is set, it will remain for about 24 hours before the boat and crew return to haul in the traps and repeat the process. They are only allowed to haul their traps once a day.

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As they move on to the next set, the deckhands "tail" prawns that Mr. Bevandick will eventually sell from the dock in Steveston, near his home in Richmond, a Vancouver suburb. Gripping each prawn firmly by its tail, the deckhands twist the prawn's oversized heads until they snap off. The tails, which are often still moving, are then packed into one-pound plastic clamshell containers and immediately placed in a deep freezer on the boat.

Mr. Bevandick says he prefers to stick to certain reliable areas and continue setting traps until they're fished out. Other skippers, such as Ivan (the Terrible) Askgaard, take a different approach. Using his speedy prawn boat, Mr. Askgaard races up and down the coast in search of locations that he believes will be the best fishing. He's been at it for about 25 years and says this season has been particularly difficult as some of his favourite spots have proven unproductive. "There is a bunch of dead ground out there. Ground that I used to fish," he complains.

Spot prawns are hermaphrodites. They are born as males, but as they age (they live about four years), the female sex organs on their tails become more pronounced. That means that small spot prawns are always male and large prawns are always female. Those sized in between are referred to as transitioning prawns or "trannys."

Mr. Bevandick will sell his frozen-tailed prawns this year for between $22 and $26 a pound, depending on their size. He'll sell most himself, but will also vend some to retailers such as Whole Foods.

Once the season ends, most spot prawn fisherman will switch to fishing other species. Mr. Bevandick will fish for albacore tuna in the late summer and fall using a different, larger boat. Mr. Askgaard will also go after other fish, but says he'll miss spot-prawning and its relatively leisurely pace.

"It's a piece of cake compared to other fishing," he says. "A piece of cake."

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