Sweet, local and one sushi chef's favorite: Meet the spot shrimp
Taichi Kitamura scanned the seafood on offer at Pike Place Fish, the stand just beyond Rachel the Pig, beneath Pike Place Market’s iconic neon clock and sign.
Kitamura is a sushi chef. He said the seafood is a bit expensive here, but worth supporting. The stand is filled with Alaskan halibut and shiny silver salmon, fresh black cod and rockfish, Penn Cove mussels, and Dungeness crab and several varieties of oysters and clams. And of course, the huge king salmon that the fishmongers are famous for tossing.
But Kitamura was drawn to something less obvious and more local.
“Right now the fish I'm excited about is this fresh lingcod,” he said, gesturing over the piles of ice and shellfish.
“I know it's open in Puget Sound in Washington state water right now. So it's particularly nice and fresh."
He said the lingcod stays moist whether steamed or pan fried. And he especially loves the skin.
It’s hard not to get distracted by the antics of the fish-tossers. They get the crowd going with a call and response routine that drowns out normal conversation. Then a woman screams when a very realistic-looking plastic monkfish suddenly pops up out of the ice; it’s on a string, pulled by a grinning fishmonger.
Kitamura loves this scene; it brings back memories of the first time he came here, in 1991 as a high school exchange student from Kyoto.
“You know, growing up in Japan, you do not throw seafood," he said with a laugh.
"And I come here and they throw in seafood, and, you know, I feel like, oh, that's not doing any good to the quality of the seafood, but it is entertaining and look how happy people are. You know, it's great. It's only in America."
He said in Japan, the seriousness about seafood is linked to intensity about all kinds of work that he wanted to escape. He stayed in Seattle after that first year at Lynnwood High School, drawn to the combination of a lively city, surrounded by mountains, sound and nature, where he could find more balance.
The sweetness of local spot shrimp
Kitamura opened his first restaurant in 2001, sold that and is now on his second: Sushi Kappo Tamura in Seattle's Eastlake neighborhood. His food attracts lots of regular customers locally, as well as tourists from all over.
“I use beautiful local seasonal ingredients, so people like that,” he said.
But there’s one thing that he's become known for that he can’t find here at the market. The largest prawns you can catch locally: spot shrimp.
“They're just sweet. You know, we call them 'Ama ebi' in Japanese, which just means sweet shrimp. They're just the sweetest shrimp you can find. It's almost candy sweet,” Kitamura said.
He said to get that sweetness, they need to be kept alive till they’re cooked. Shrimp that’s not local is only available frozen.
“If it's coming from Alaska or Canada it's, it's not live. And dead shrimp do taste different from live shrimp,” he explained.
The season near Seattle usually starts in May. Kitamura gets spot shrimp for his restaurant from commercial suppliers. But he also loves to join friends on a boat when the short recreational fishery opens.
“We do this in Puget Sound. So it's very close. You know, I drive 15 minutes and I'm at Shilshole Bay. We launch a boat there. Then you go fishing or shrimping or crabbing, and you do that for three or four hours and you come home with nice ingredients for your dinner,” he said. “We live in a great location to do that.”
Testing fisheries to set quotas for sustainable harvest
The state keeps a close eye on spot shrimp, also called spot prawns, to keep the fishery sustainable.
On board a catamaran known as El Gato, four crustacean biologists from the Washington Department of Fish and Wildlife headed out from Edmonds, Wash. into North Puget Sound. They checked on pots they set a day earlier at six locations on the seafloor, and gathered samples for the bi-annual test fishery. Don Velasquez leads the team.
“Basically, we're collecting a sample of spot shrimp in each of these different sites,” he said. “And what we're trying to do is describe the population of spot shrimp in each of these areas.”
The biologists track things like the average size and weight of the shrimp and their gender, which is one of the most fascinating details of their biology.
The spot shrimp all start their lives as small males. Then as they mature and grow, they change sexes. After they transition, the mature females grow to be as large as 9-inches long. And that large size is what most people go for when they’re taking them home to eat.
“So we're essentially fishing on a large portion of the female population. These are short-lived animals as well. And so we have to be careful about how many of these we take just to make sure that they can continue to reproduce and refresh the population,” Velasquez said.
He said the timing of their transition might be an indicator of stress on the population, from overfishing or climate change, which can make water more acidic.
“Because if spot shrimp populations are stressed, they tend to respond by transitioning to females at a smaller size. And so that's one of the things we monitor in test fishing like this,” he said.
The state’s dataset goes back about two decades. It’s used as an indicator of how the local spot shrimp are doing and how much people should take as food. Based on that, they announce which days and for how many hours the spot shrimp season will be open.
Time to go shrimping
Back at Pike Place Market, sushi chef Taichi Kitamura was getting excited about his plans to go shrimping. Elliott Bay, right in front of downtown Seattle, was going to be open after being closed for recreational spot shrimping for a couple years. The season is only open for four hours on one day: May 25. It’s like a derby.
“So it's rather hectic, but it's totally worth it. Because you go home with – I think the limit is 70 shrimp per person. So you have five guys on your boat, that's 350 shrimp,” he said.
He likes to steam them and serve them with his signature sake butter sauce, then use the leftover heads to make a rich broth for ramen. He said don’t tell his staff, but he’ll skip work to go shrimping. He won’t miss it for anything.
From Pike Place Market, Kitamura headed to his commercial supplier for a key ingredient for that night's menu. He got a message that said the sweet live spot shrimp he loves were fresh off the boat.
KNKX Connects is an ongoing series showcasing the people and places of our diverse and vibrant region. Your support helps KNKX connect listeners throughout Western Washington, presenting a much deeper look at the place we call home. Donate to this vital community service today.