Fishing for B.C. spot prawns with Organic Ocean

If you tell a fisherman a secret, rest assured that he will keep it.

About an hour into a spot-prawn fishing trip on the Organic Ocean boat, I can tell that long-time fishermen Steve Johansen and Frank Keitsch have many secrets.

I can also tell that I’m probably badgering them with too many questions. A fisherman never discloses his fishing location. He probably also won’t tell you the exact size of his catch.

“What do you want to know that for?” Keitsch asks in between puffs of his cigarette. “Do you have a prawn boat?”

Frank Keitsch fills a compartment below deck with cold salt water. The spot prawns will be stored there until they reach shore.
Michelle da Silva

It’s a sunny but crisp morning at the end of May, and we’re about halfway through B.C. spot-prawn season. Organic Ocean, which Johansen started with fellow fisherman Dane Chauvel over a decade ago, supplies many Lower Mainland restaurants with fresh, sustainable seafood most of the year, and business is extra busy in May and June, when Organic Ocean sells fresh spot prawns right off the boat at False Creek Fisherman’s Wharf each day.

Johansen and Keitsch have been friends since childhood and commercial fishermen for over 20 years. They work seven days a week for about seven months of the year, and fish for salmon and halibut when they’re not zipping around local waters for prawns.

Peter Chauvel, who is spending his summer off from university working on boats, prepares the spot-prawn bait.
Michelle da Silva

On this day, we’re joined by a third fisherman, Peter Chauvel, who is Dane’s son. He’s home from university for the summer, and after spot-prawn season ends mid-June, he’ll join his father in Haida Gwaii catching salmon.

As we approach the first line of nets, Johansen and Keitsch slip into their waterproof overalls and jackets. Even on a sundrenched morning, these fishermen get soaked flinging hundreds of traps on and off board. Chauvel is already wearing waterproof gear. He’s been putting together bait for the traps since we pulled away from the dock.

About 30 minutes into our trip, Keitsch hauls the day’s first catch on board. Johansen empties the trap onto a table and quickly sorts through its contents, keeping only large adult prawns and flinging everything else—fish, crab, and at one point, even a tiny lobster—back into the ocean. Smaller spot prawns and ones with eggs are also tossed overboard—for next season, Johansen explains.  

Steve Johansen offers the writer a taste of the day's catch.
Michelle da Silva

Before scooping the remaining spot prawns into a container, which is lowered into a salty cold bath below deck, Johansen grabs one of the prawns, rips off its head, and hands me the body. I hesitate before reaching out to hold the prawn’s still-twitching tail, and immediately realize how wimpy I must look.

“Haven’t you ever had prawn sashimi?” Johansen questions with a laughter in his voice. “Yes,” I reply. “But it’s usually not moving when it arrives on my plate.”

After gingerly removing the prawn’s shell, I twist the translucent white flesh off of its tail and pop the delicate creature in my mouth. The meat is slightly sweet and its texture firm. This is without a doubt the freshest seafood I’ve ever eaten.

I stand on one side of the boat, mostly trying to stay out of everyone’s way. The three fishermen have a conveyor-belt system in place: Keitsch lifts up the trap, Johansen sorts through the catch, and Chauvel fills the empty trap with fresh bait before stacking the large nets at the back of the boat.

Frank Keitsch and Peter Chauvel prepare to lower the traps back into the water.
Michelle da Silva

We do this three times over the course of about three hours. I can tell it’s hard work, even though I haven’t done anything except for marvel at a bloom of jellyfish and hold a few crabs. I’m reminded that today’s weather is sunny and dry, and yesterday’s was not. Johansen, Keitsch, and Chauvel are out on the ocean at 7 a.m. each day. “It can get depressing when all you see is grey,” Keitsch says about the stormier days.

Later that morning, we dock again, but the Organic Ocean is only there for a minute to drop me off. Johansen, Keitsch, and Chauvel will head to another spot and spend a few more hours fishing for spot prawns that day. They’re typically on shore by early afternoon, and Johansen personally delivers the day’s catch to local chefs.

Frank Keitsch, Peter Chauvel, and Steve Johansen pose for a quick photo before hopping back on the Organic Ocean boat.
Michelle da Silva
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