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At The Market

ISLAND DELICACIES : Shellfish Season : West Coast lobsters and Santa Barbara spot prawns are in good supply now at seafood markets.

January 17, 1991|RODNEY BOSCH | TIMES STAFF WRITER

Crawling and scavenging along the bottom of the sea right off Ventura County's coast is a popular seafood commodity which for most people tops the list of ocean edibles.

Boiled or broiled, as an appetizer or an entree, shellfish are a plentiful catch and available soon after they're taken from the sea.

Most popular among a wide selection of shellfish--which include clams and oysters and the like--are prawns and lobster.

Available to Ventura County seafood fanciers at a number of area seafood markets are Santa Barbara spot prawns and West Coast lobsters.

Now in the midst of a peak harvest season for both species, fishermen are taking to the sea and hauling in their take to fill the orders of wholesalers, retailers and restaurateurs.

The Channel Islands provide a rich habitat for lobster to flourish and it is there that fishermen stalk the prized crustacean.

"A lot of the lobster I get is from San Nicholas Island," local lobsterman Jim Colony said.

Colony will submerge up to 300 traps--each baited with an enticing slab of odoriferous tuna or mackerel--in the shallow waters just off the island.

"Everybody has his own way of doing things, but the basic cage size is 3-foot by 4 by 1 1/2," he said.

The traps, made of wire and each attached to an individual line, are specially designed with the lobsters' well-being in mind.

"In case a trap breaks away from the line, 'destruct clips' allow the door to open so any animal caught can escape," Colony said. "Not only is it the law, it just makes good sense."

After sinking the cages, fishermen are also required by law to check for trapped lobsters every four days.

Colony said hydraulic pullers lift the traps through the water. But heaving them onto the boat is quite a chore.

"Each trap is weighted with anywhere from 30 to 80 pounds of steel or concrete," he said, "and you have to lift them onto the boat by hand.

"You can tell an old trapper by the way he's hunched over at the back," Colony said, laughing. Although an 11 1/2-pound lobster was the largest he ever caught, Colony prefers catching those closer to the minimum size requirement because they are more in demand.

"We have a size limit of 3 1/4 inches across the back," he said. "That's perfect for the restaurants."

Colony receives $6 per pound, and considering the inevitable markups en route to a dinner plate, a weighty lobster will demand a heavy ticket price.

The locally caught West Coast variety differs from its famed East Coast cousin in many subtle ways, and in one not so subtle.

"They're the ones with the huge claws," Colony said, "ours don't have claws; they look like huge shrimp."

According to Michael Wagner, owner of Seafood Specialties in Ventura, consumers can expect to pay an average of $9.95 to $11.95 per pound for a local lobster.

Santa Barbara spot prawns are running aplenty, said Ed Lusk, owner of Cal Pacifica Seafood in Ventura.

Found several hundred feet below, on the ocean floor, the prawns are lured into traps with an irresistible treat--canned pet food. A second fishing technique involves trawling. "Trawling is basically dragging a net along the bottom," Lusk said. Although trawling is restricted to the months of February through October, trapping takes place year-round.

"Another variety we catch locally is the ridge back," Lusk said. Given its strict diet of vegetarian matter, Lusk said the ridge back cannot be lured into traps and must be caught using the trawling method.

For his money, Lusk chooses the ridge back over spot prawns.

"Spot prawns are more popular because they're bigger, but I prefer the ridge backs," Lusk said, "I think they have a better flavor."

And the local asking price for spot prawns, Mr. Wagner? "Whole, they are about $8 to $9 a pound at most markets. The tails only are $12 to $14 a pound." Ridge backs retail for $1.70 to $2.

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