The COVID-19 pandemic has dampened an otherwise strong year for B.C.’s spot prawn fishers.
The fishery closed July 16 roughly one month later than usual after a delayed opening due to the pandemic. Fishers now are reporting strong yields for 2020, with the added benefit of slightly larger sizes thanks to the late harvest.
Normally this would be good news, but overseas markets, that account for about 90 per cent of B.C.’s catch, are not placing any new orders. Roughly 1.5-million pounds of frozen product from last year’s haul is still stockpiled for cancelled Chinese New Year events and the Tokyo Summer Olympics.
“To keep piling stuff into the freezer would be ludicrous,”Mike Atkins, executive director of the Pacific Prawn Fishermen’s Association said.
“It has the potential to hurt us for a few years to get rid of the backlog, but hopefully China and Japan open back up and get things moving along.”
Shrimp and prawns are one of B.C.’s top seafood exports worth $53.1 million in 2018, with China accounting for 51 per cent of sales and Japan at 22 per cent.
The massive surplus has cut the market value of frozen B.C. prawns in half. Producers are now seeking out new domestic markets to break even.
Atkins its hopeful B.C. restaurants and grocery stores can help absorb the inventory.
“I know a lot of the fleet are exploring local opportunities that haven’t been explored before,” he said.
But the wildly varying retail prices will probably have to fall in line with actual landed values before the public will get excited about a local market, said Christina Burridge, executive director for the BC Seafood Alliance, a non-profit umbrella organization representing fisheries, processors, marketers and exporters.
“Some outlets are passing on a fair chunk of the lower price to consumers, while other outlets are preferring to keep the price steady because that’s what consumers expect,” Burridge said.
“People love spot prawns. What I think will happen is, as people realize there is significant supply for the domestic market the retail price will come down … and that makes them an attractive option to the farmed prawns from Asia.”
She added British Columbians’ preference for fresh prawns over frozen prawns might also relax as consumers rally behind B.C. fishers and locally-sourced food, as seen in other sectors during the pandemic.
This seems to be the case with some North Coast fishers. Peter Haugen said he’s caught about 14,000 lbs of prawn this year, compared to 10,000 and 12,000 the previous two years.
“I’m not a big producer, but I’ve had a pretty good year,” he said. “I’ve been told that the mediums aren’t going to be worth much at all, so I’ve been selling them myself and it’s working out pretty good.”
The Pacific Prawn Fishermen’s Association is confident the industry will recover from the season.
“It’s going to be a tough year, but fishermen have seen that before, Atkins said. “Some guys are scratching to break even but I don’t think we’re going to see an influx of boats and licences for sale. It’s still a good fishery — it started in the early 1900s and it’s still really healthy. How many commercial fisheries in Canada can say that?”