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Top Species: Prawns

Unique flavor, size let these crustaceans stand on their own

Aussea brand is one of several prawns harvested wordwide. - Photo courtesy of South Australia Prawn Co-operative Ltd.
By Joanne Friedrick
April 01, 2013

People around the world may use the words “shrimp” and “prawn” interchangeably, but the prawn is very much its own animal. Whether you are talking about giant river prawns (Machrobrachium rosenbergii) from Malaysia, which are also farmed in the United States, or Western king prawns (Melicertus latisulcatus) from Australia or the New Caledonia blue prawns (Lipopenaeus stylirostris), these aren’t to be confused with the pink, white and brown shrimp that dominate the supermarket seafood department.

One prawn that has gotten some attention within the U.S. market is the freshwater blue prawn, says Mark Phillips, a salesperson for Prawn Corp. of America, based in Westwood, N.J.

Freshwater blue prawns thrived in Hawaii for many years, and Prawn Corp. has carried them for more than 25 years. But when Hawaii stopped supporting the industry by providing seed to farmers, “the industry pretty much went by the wayside,” he says.

Now Prawn Corp. gets its freshwater blues from farms in Central America and the Pacific Rim that raise the prawns in ponds or brackish water.

Demand is there season after season, says Phillips, especially among high-end restaurants, chefs and caterers, although the company does sell direct to consumers as well. The retailer/distributor offers U2s through U12s that range in price from $17.99 to $13.99 per pound.

As a seasonal product, the prawns can be scarce at times, says Phillips, who also notes that prices have risen modestly over the years, “because it costs more to do everything.”

Although prawns are often compared to shrimp, Phillips says these prawns — a relative of the crawfish — have a different taste, texture and even require different handling than traditional shrimp. Prawn Corp., in its recommendations to purchasers, says the blue prawns are best grilled, broiled or sautéed, and advises against boiling, steaming or poaching.

It’s also best to cook them with the heads on and in half the time allotted for regular shrimp. A popular presentation is to split them down the middle and stuff the heads.

The taste and size appeal to “well-traveled chefs” who have experienced the prawns firsthand, says Phillips.

The Aussie version 

Down Under, the wild king prawn is the preferred choice, according to Rick Mezic, marketing and sales manager for South Australia Prawn Co-operative Ltd., which markets the Aussea brand of prawns. 

The prawns come from the Spencer Gulf prawn fishery, which is Marine Stewardship Council (MSC)-certified. In describing the prawns, Mezic says they have a “unique depth of flavor that cannot be replicated by farmed/aquaculture prawn species.”

The prawns come from the cool waters off the coast of South Australia and are harvested by otter trawl. 

“The areas we fish in are only sandy bottom; our fishing nets lightly skim just above the bottom, with minimal impact to the ecosystem and the lowest bycatch levels of any other prawn fishery,” he says.

The co-op has 17 family-owned, mostly family operated vessels, adds Mezic.

The Western king prawn can range from U6s to 21/30s, but most fall into the 10/15 size range, he says.

“The demand for the wild-caught MSC category has increased, especially in Europe in the past two years,” explains Mezic, “but because of the current high value of the Australian dollar, it hasn’t assisted our export sales.” 

The target isn’t the mass market, but rather more quality-focused importers “who appreciate the strong fundamentals of our product.”

King prawns are mostly sold whole cooked or raw, with the cooked served chilled and the raw grilled. During peak demand in December, the prawns were selling for $30 to $35 (AUD) per kilo.

“Chefs and consumers who are familiar with our prawns know that they do not have to smother the prawns with sauces or ingredients,” he says. “The flavor is in the prawn.”

South Australia Prawn Co-operative Ltd. sells to wholesalers and retail fishmongers, supermarkets and foodservice. The marketing has been concentrated within Australia, as well as the United Kingdom and Europe and export to Asia, says Mezic.

Sustainability is always on the minds of prawn fishermen such as Mezic. “Our most important sustainable fishing practices are real-time management and stock assessment surveys before we fish commercially.”

Eight to 12 vessels are sent out into traditional fishing areas to evaluate size, quantity of catch and most importantly spawning stage of the prawn. This information is discussed by a committee at sea and all vessels are informed of commercial fishing areas and sizes targeted. The real-time management comes if small prawns move into the commercial fishing areas; then that area is closed to fishing within 60 minutes.

Down on the farm 

Wayne Martin of Greystone Farm in Chester, Va., has been raising giant Malaysian river prawns since 2008 in a four-pond set up. The 2-acre ponds hold about 1,800 pounds of prawns that can range in size from U-10s to 14 per pound when fully grown. It takes about four to five months for the prawns to mature, says Martin, who begins with about 30,000 to 50,000 juveniles per pound. 

Most of what Martin raises is sold directly from the farm to consumers who attend a yearly harvest-day event. “If the weather is good, they sell like crazy,” says Martin. There is just one harvest per season, with the prawns being drained from the ponds and removed into a series of tanks where they are cleaned off and then placed in ice slurry.

When it comes to taste, Martin says he much prefers prawns to shrimp. “They taste like lobster with the butter already on it,” he says.

Contributing Editor Joanne Friedrick lives in Portland, Maine

Find other SeaFood Business articles covering prawns here.

April 2013 - SeaFood Business  

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