ALMOST offhandedly, Tommy Pearson points across the ocean toward the horizon: "Look at all those birds, must be some dolphins coming." Sure enough, a couple of minutes later we're in the midst of a pod that seems a quarter-mile across. It's an awesome sight, hundreds of dolphins arching through the waves.
But Pearson doesn't slow down. He's on his way to work, and this is just another sight on his daily commute. That's what life is like when your office is at the edge of the continental shelf and you get there by boat.
At 45, Pearson has spent his whole life on the water. It's the only work he's ever done. And right now, the one thing on his mind is spot prawns.
Few things excite Southern California seafood lovers like spot prawns. Their shells are a pale orange that seems to glow from within, and their snow-white flesh is as firm and sweet as lobster.
Saute them with butter and garlic and some halved cherry tomatoes, strap them in a grill basket and give them a few minutes over an open flame, bake them in salt . . . with an ingredient this good, you don't need to do much to make a great meal.
But spot prawns are a crustacean with a complicated story. In the first place, despite their size, they're not really prawns; they're shrimp. And let's not even get into a discussion of their sex lives.
One of the best places to buy spot prawns is Pearson's Port, the seafood shop Tommy and his wife, Terese, run in Newport Harbor. She manages the store while he stocks it. They are the second generation of Pearsons to man the Port. He started his waterman's career crewing for his dad, Roy, while his mom, Vi, ran the store.
From the outside, Pearson's Port certainly doesn't look like a treasure trove -- it's basically a one-room shanty at the end of a short pier (when they say it's "in" Newport Harbor, that's what they mean). But the store's interior is ringed with live tanks full of the bounty Pearson brings home from the sea.
Buying spot prawns while they are still alive and kicking (no hyperbole here) is the key to quality. Almost immediately after they die, an enzyme in the prawn's head spreads through the body and starts to turn the flesh to mush.
The prawns are kept alive in tanks of chilled oxygenated water that look like big aquariums. Aside from Asian groceries and a few small seafood specialty markets, you'll hardly ever find anyone selling spot prawns.
But at Pearson's Port, the year is divided into two seasons: Spiny lobster in the fall and winter, and spot prawns in the spring and summer.
Tough to trap
While spinys live in water shallow enough that they can be taken by free divers, spot prawns are much tougher to catch. They inhabit the deep canyons and cracks of the continental shelf, generally between 600 and 1,000 feet below the surface of the sea, a couple of miles off the coast.
That's where Pearson is headed now in his fishing boat, the Harvest. Actually, the term "fishing boat" is a bit overblown. At 26 feet, the Harvest is no bigger than a good-sized motorboat, smaller than the dinghies on some of the yachts in Newport Harbor.
But it's big enough to do the job, if only barely. Pearson catches spot prawns in traps, 12 of them strung together on 3,600-foot-long ropes. When a string of traps is stacked on the back of the boat, there's just enough room left on board to turn around.
The traps themselves are round and about 3 feet across, made of stiff black plastic mesh. On either side are funnel-shaped openings that allow the shrimp to enter, but not escape.
In the center is a container for bait -- Pearson prefers Friskies brand "Salmon Dinner" cat food. More traditional baits such as chopped-up fish attract too many octopuses, he says, and they scare the shrimp away. Friskies seems to have a more limited appeal, and he keeps cases of it stored in the small compartment below deck.
Pearson and deckhand Spencer Frohling make a smooth team. Pearson pilots the boat alongside one of the reddish orange plastic buoys that mark the end of the line of traps, and Frohling snags it with a gaff. Pearson threads the bright yellow rope through a hydraulic winch and begins to wind.
When a trap comes up, it's hoisted aboard and quickly emptied. Any prawns are picked out by hand and dropped in an ice-water well in the middle of the deck. Fresh water is constantly pumped over the well to keep it oxygenated and cooled to about 40 degrees.
Most everything else in the traps -- sea urchins, small fish and miscellaneous unidentified invertebrates Pearson calls "blobs" -- is tossed back into the ocean. He stows any octopuses he catches in the thermal sleeve around the well; he says some elderly Italians come by the store to buy them.
After the prawns have been collected, the process reverses as Frohling and Pearson heave the traps one at a time off the back of the boat. This, Pearson says, is one of the crucial parts of spot prawn fishing: judging the current so the traps play out in a line rather than being pushed into a stack.