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Steveston fishermen race against time for spot prawn season

Two weeks left until this year’s spot prawn season is over…

The annual spot prawn season may feel short and sweet to seafood enthusiasts, but it’s even more pressing for the few spot prawn fishermen at Steveston’s Fisherman’s Wharf.

The wild spot prawn, known for its eponymous spots, has a four-year life cycle and lives in “crystal clear, pristine waters” deep in the ocean.

“By year number two, they transition into a female. And they spawn at year number four, and then they die,” said Frank “Fisherman Frank” Keitsch, who has been catching spot prawns for around 30 years.

The fishery is heavily regulated by the Department of Fisheries and Oceans, typically lasting around 40 days with 18-hour work days seven days a week.

“You’re trying to make your salary for the entire year in this compressed amount of time,” said Jaime Gusto, general manager of Steveston Harbour Authority.

Fishermen in B.C. are required to follow sustainable practices when harvesting spot prawns, including using traps. Harvesting is only allowed after winter, during the last months of the spot prawn’s lifespan after laying eggs.

“If we do get one that has eggs, by law we have to throw it back into the ocean,” Keitch said, adding any bycatches such as crabs and fish get thrown back into the water as well.

Like other fisheries, there is an inherent danger to spot prawn fishing anytime you’re at sea. Fishermen are at the mercy of Mother Nature, facing dangers such as inclement weather, rough seas and the risk of getting tangled in ground lines.

Mechanical breakdowns during the season are also devastating if last-minute fixes can’t be done.

With the fishing grounds being far away from Steveston, only around four local boats are able to cover the distance.

“It’s a dangerous fishery for sure,” said Keitsch.

Pioneering local spot prawn sales

The spot prawn scene was very different 30 years ago when Keitsch’s dad became a pioneer in selling the crustacean locally.

Spot prawn fishing started in B.C. around 40 years ago, but during the first 15 to 20 years, 90 per cent of B.C. spot prawns were harvested, frozen and sold overseas to Japan and other markets.

Then Fritz Keitsch, Frank’s father, brought them to the Steveston docks.

“The first few months he did it, nobody even knew what a spot prawn was in those days, so he had a hard time selling the prawns,” said Keitsch.

“I remember him telling me, ‘Frank, I can’t sell enough to even pay for my fuel.’”

There was no social media in those times, but all Fisherman Fritz needed was word of mouth. Within a year, he managed to build a huge following.

“There were times when he would come in on a Friday afternoon and the dock was sinking with people because he was the only one doing it,” said Keitsch.

The initial spot prawn frenzy faded away when Fritz retired a few years later, only to be brought back by local fishermen in recent years in response to popular demand.

Now, only around 50 per cent of B.C. spot prawns are exported overseas.

“I personally have not sold a prawn overseas in over 15 years. Everything I’ve caught, they stay right here,” said Keitsch.

Thanks to efforts by local fishermen to promote spot prawns, the spot prawn is now embraced by the community as a local product.

Getting over the hump

Spot prawn sales typically slow down after opening week after everyone has had their fix. To give sales a much-needed boost, Tourism Richmond decided to hold an annual Steveston Spot Prawn and Seafood Celebration in partnership with the Steveston Harbour Authority.

“So it was like, ‘How can we help our fishermen generate more sales during this very small window of time?’” Gusto explained, adding the event is intended to celebrate all local catches and not just spot prawns.

Apart from the ever-so-popular salmon, the sea urchin has a loyal fanbase on the docks. The crab fishery is also on the rise, according to Keitsch.

One benefit of the event is the requirement for participating restaurants to purchase seafood, not just spot prawns, directly from local fishermen.

“The large majority of restaurants in Steveston do not support our local fishermen. They do not purchase directly from fishermen. Very few (do),” said Gusto.

The event also hopes to encourage community members to interact with fishermen directly and cut out the middleman.

“It’s amazing… seeing people coming down when they run down the dock and they see your prawn boat coming out,” said Keitsch.

“We actually had some people say to us, ‘Hey, we thank you guys for doing what you’re doing.’”

The community support extends far beyond Steveston and Richmond, with many driving all the way from Abbotsford and Pitt Meadows to get a taste of the famed prawns.

With just about two weeks left in the season, Steveston’s fishermen are working together to make the best of the season.

“On the ocean, we’re competitors. It’s every man and woman for (themselves) out there. But here (on the docks), we do try to have a program where we have prawns from the morning right until the afternoon as other boats come in through the course of the day,” said Keitsch.