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Commercial prawn season opens in Powell River

Short, competitive fishery important to local economy
SHELLFISH PROCESSING: Workers at Powell River’s Sea Plus Foods process spot prawns during last year’s disappointing fishing season. The annual prawn fishery opens Thursday, May 11. Peak archive photo

Commercial prawn fishers will be heading out to sea on Thursday, May 11, when the annual fishery opens.

For the fishers, it is an expensive entry, hard work during the short season, and sometimes lucrative. Few prawn fishers will actually divulge the size of the catch and the association representing them does not have the answer.

“It must be somewhat profitable because licensed fishers continue to do it and there is significant interest in the industry,” said Pacific Prawn Fisherman’s Association executive director Steven Richards. “To become a commercially licensed prawn fisher, you need to purchase a commercial prawn licence, which is a commodity traded and available on the open market through brokers.”

A total of 247 prawn boats are licensed in the province, 59 of which are first nations.

Commercial prawn fishing licences are related to the size of the boat, according to Richards, and, generally, the longer the boat, the more expensive the licence.

“You’re probably starting at $500,000 and going up from there,” he said.

Richards said the success of the BC prawn industry can be attributed to a number of factors. The product is sought after, a truly sustainable seafood product, and the fishery is well managed, he said.

The industry is governed by season length, so it is a competitive, fairly intense fishery lasting approximately 40 days, but it varies each year, he added.

According to Ian Leitch, owner and manager of Powell River’s Sea Plus Foods, last season was the shortest and lowest volume on record.

“It’s becoming a little bit tougher to make things work,” said Leitch. “As volume shrinks, the season shortens up and overhead goes higher.”

Even though the fishery has changed in terms of the practices fishers use to catch prawns, the overall take over 15 years has remained fairly constant, said Leitch.

Fisheries management practices put in place by Fisheries and Oceans Canada appear to be working and the industry has a healthy biomass.

The value of the fishery to the BC economy is significant, according to Richards. The last year the prawn association can draw reliable data from is 2013, which showed the wholesale value of the commercial prawns was $53 million out of $1.4 billion in seafood production.

The prawn fishery, said Leitch, is important to the Powell River economy.

“It’s absolutely huge,” said Leitch. “I employ about 49 students here at the shop. I also employ all the fishers and deckhands on my boats.”

Leitch said his total payroll includes 142 people.