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Story and photos by Yvette Cardozo

High on Adventure, March 2018


      I’ve just found the world’s fittest athletes: Commercial prawn fishermen.

     I don’t know what I expected on the commercial fishing boat Nordic Rand that morning, but a nonstop whirlwind of frenzied activity wasn’t it.

  Nordic Rand, prawn fishing boat   Empting prawns from trap aboard the Nordic Rand  
The Nordic Rand in Victoria Harbour
Emptying a prawn trap aboard the Nordic Rand

     Not many outsiders get to follow their food from the bottom of the ocean to their plate, but when the invite came, I said, “Absolutely, yes.”

     So at (urg) 5am one May morning, I showed up at the dock on British Columbia’s Vancouver Island and discovered, um, you need to be an athlete just to get aboard. It was several feet down to the top of the railing. One of the guys grabbed a handle, swung out and landed, deftly, in the squeeze of empty space between bins and assorted equipment.        For me, the boat pushed off, came around and picked me up at the public dock where all I had to do was swing my leg over the side. Whew.

     Breakfast was a huge pan of scrambled eggs strewn with lots of cheese and whatnot along with an entire cookie sheet of bacon. For four guys. I soon learned why they chowed down so heartily.

     The Nordic Rand runs half a dozen “long lines” -- sturdy half-mile long ropes, each holding 50 four-foot, disk-shaped traps. All these are let out, left for a day, then reeled in and emptied.  

  Prawn basket   Fresh caught prawns  
Star caught in prawn basket to be released
Fresh caught prawns


     These prawn fishermen do this every day, non-stop, sunup till sundown, for the duration of the season, which this year, ran early May through early June.

     We started with a quick lesson on prawns vs shrimp. They are NOT the same thing, though for the average person, it’s a bit of splitting hairs (or really, claws).

     Prawns have claws on three of their five pairs of legs, shrimp have claws on two of their five pairs of legs. Prawns are longer and their tails are noticeably larger. As far as eating them goes, they taste and cook the same.

     We motored out for about an hour, found the end of the trap line, loaded it onto the spooler and started reeling in the traps.  

     And then the fun began.

  Shrimp trap loading onto long line   Stacking shrimp traps  
Reloading shrimp traps onto long line
Stacking shrimp traps after emptying them

     It’s a whirlwind of flying spray and prawns. While Capt. James Simpson on the back deck reloaded the traps with bait - a mash of fish parts and fish food that went into hanging sleeves - fisherman Bryar Lang stood at the rail, clipping the coffee table sized traps onto the line.  

     When that line was loaded and spooled out, it was time to pull up another line.

     Traps were hauled aboard, emptied into a tray, then passed on to Simpson on the back deck who stacked the traps. By the end, the traps were stacked eight to ten high, waiting to be reloaded and re-dropped into the ocean. Each trap, by the way, loaded with its catch, probably weighed 50 pounds.

     As for the tray, it was covered mostly not in prawns but shells holding hundreds of hermit crabs and assorted sea life. So Lang and his buddies Simon Winterburn and Kyle Plensky were now shoveling shells back into the ocean, along with the occasional fish and, at one point, a basket starfish bigger than a frisbee.

     Okay, then the rest of the work started. While Simpson on the back deck was reloading bait, the guy at the tray tossed prawns into separate bins by size. Those went into baskets, then into a vat of fresh water with a glazing dip so they would keep their pink color.

  Fresh caught prawn   Fresh caught prawns  
Fresh caught prawn
Fresh caught prawns

    And then the prawns went into boxes, which were weighed and dropped into a huge freezer below decks which, amazingly, can go down to 55 degrees below zero and flash freeze the entire catch.

     Each trap can be emptied once a day and each day they can bring in anywhere from 500 to 1,000 lbs. of prawns.

     As for the season, Simpson explained that an inspector periodically comes on board to sample the prawns. 

     “If you’re catching only young, small ones, it’s time to close the season. Nobody wants to catch the small ones. There’s no money in it and it’s not good for the stock.”

     And the rest of the year?

     Tuna and halibut in summer, sable fish in winter, Simpson said.

     But now it was time to eat. 

     At my friend Laurie’s house, we had cold prawns and homemade cocktail sauce (ketchup, worcestershire, horseradish, a splash of lemon juice, a splash of tabasco).

  Fresh caught prawns ready to eat   Fresh prawns cooked as tempura  
Fresh caught prawns ready to eat
Fresh prawns cooked as tempura

     And then to Little Jumbo, a cozy restaurant near Victoria’s waterfront.

     Chef Gabe Fayerman-Hansen whipped up prawn ceviche over an avocado mousse.  The prawns were silky soft and you could actually taste the individual ingredients - the mild, grassy bite of cilantro, the tang of ginger, the garlic, even a hint of basil and, of course, vinegar and lime. Yes, my tongue is almost dripping as I type this.

     The entree was prawns tempura. The batter was light and crisp and seasoned just enough for character but not so much as to overpower the sweet ocean taste of prawns that had been swimming that very morning.

     During prawn season, Chef Gabe runs prawns at Little Jumbo as a special feature. And this year, he was the chef at  the FAS (Finest At Sea) headquarters/retail store cooking prawns and handing them out to the public.

     The day I left to fly back to Seattle, I stopped in at the FAS fish counter and loaded up on smoked tuna and salmon “candy,” but not before taking a picture of the display, where you could see signs telling you not only what the fish was but how it was processed and what boat brought it in.    

FAS Finest salmon and tuna for sale



Kenmore Air pilot flying

FAS Finest salmon and tuna for sale
Kenmore Air pilot flying



     For Americans, it is okay to bring smoked fish (and meat) back into the US.

     FAS (Finest At Sea) hosts free BBQs at their office/retail shop in Victoria celebrating the various fishing seasons including prawns, salmon, tuna, halibut, sable fish and more. Then once a month, they have a dinner where one of their fishing boat captains comes to talk about commercial fishing. To close the prawn season in June, Capt. James Simpson  brought one of his traps and described what his boat does. The four course dinner that month featured prawns and was $90 Cdn. Reservations for future dinners can be made through the FAS website or calling (250)383-7760.   


Victoria Harbour
Victoria cruiseship atr dock in Victoria Harbour

    Government Street with its pubs, cafes and shops is always a top draw in Victoria. But there’s lots more:

*Abkhazi Teahouse - It was once the home of exiled Georgian Prince Nicholas Abkhazi and his wife Peggy. After their deaths, The Land Conservancy of British Columbia purchased the property to save it from becoming a townhouse development. Today, you can stroll the compact garden and enjoy high tea. Everything on the menu is made onsite except for the Devonshire cream. The teas are local from Silk Road Teas and all of the baking, including pastries and gluten free bread (available for sale), is made by pastry chef Gerry Galapon.

  Abkhazi Teahouse in Victoria   Abkhazi Teahouse garden  
Abkhazi Teahouse in Victoria
Abkhazi Teahouse garden
Abkhazi Teahouse tea
  Abkhazi Teahouse high tea  
  Abkhazi Teahouse tea service   Abkhazi Teahouse high tea  

*A Taste of Victoria Food Tours - Owner Andy Olson takes folks on a two hour stroll of history paired with tasty nibbles through the heart of Victoria. It begins at the Victoria Public Market and includes stops throughout Chinatown including Fan Tan Alley, then on to Market Square, Government St., the Inner Harbour Causeway and Parliament Buildings. 


     Our day included French Oven Bakery for hot, out-of-the-oven breads, Roast Meat for meatballs, The Very Good Butchers for tastes of vegan fare that included a “Roast Beast Sandwich” made with bean based “meats” that to a dedicated carnivore was stunningly good. Then we were on to Chinatown for a peek at the three-foot-wide Fan Tan Alley, La Roux French Patisserie for sweets, Just Matcha for Japanese green tea, Sult Pierogi Bar for, yes, pierogis and wound up with samples at Rogers Chocolates.

       But best were some fascinating tidbits of information: The famed Empress Hotel is sinking an inch each year. Low windows are now a foot below ground because the place was built on a landfill. But even better, when they ripped off all that ivy (yes, the Boston ivy is gone), they found stashes of jewelry that had been stolen from guest rooms by raccoons.


Very Good Butchers vegan fare
Very Good Butchers

French Oven Bakery in Victoria Public Market

French Oven Bakery


Entrance to Victoria Chinatown

Victoria Fan Tan Alley
Entrance to Victoria Chinatown
Fan Tan Alley, former opium den

*The Fickle Fig Farm Market -

Fickle Fig chef
       This is about as “farm to table” as it gets. Chef/farmer/owner Mitchell Morse dreamed of opening a bistro right on a farm. So behind his little cafe in the Victoria suburb of North Saanich are raised beds with salad greens, a little pig pen with three fat pigs, pet bunnies (no, they are NOT on the menu) and around the neighborhood, several acres of leased mini farms.

       Morse started out baking breads for sale but one thing led to another and now he is doing light lunches featuring whatever is fresh and seasonal. The day we visited, it was home made chicken/veggie soup, home made pizza and, of course, home made bread.

        He also holds classes which, last June, included pizza-making, bread-making and a pasta class.

Fickle Fig owner/chef Mitchell Morse

*Victoria Butterfly Gardens -

       My fave thing here (after the meat eating tropical plant) was the huge ant farm near the entrance where you can watch a determined line of ants marching up and down tree limbs, each clutching a huge bit of leaf, destined for its nest. Then beyond the doors in the well heated (80 degree) tropical forest are the butterflies. Owl butterflies munching on banana slices, tailed jay butterflies perched on neon purple leaves and lots more, along with assorted turtles and two flamingos so startling pink, they make your eyes hurt.    Victoria Butterfly Gardens  
Victoria Butterfly Gardens


Finest At Sea: http://www.finestatsea.com/ 
Little Jumbo: http://littlejumbo.ca/
Abkhazi Teahouse: http://www.abkhaziteahouse.com/ 
A Taste of Victoria Food Tours: http://www.atasteofvictoriafoodtours.com/
Fickle Fig Farm: http://www.theficklefig.ca
Victoria Butterfly Gardens: http://www.butterflygardens.com

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