Prawns vs. oysters: fighting the good fight 

Which seafood favourite wins the UFC trophy?

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If there was a UFC for food — think of it as the Ultimate Food rather than Ultimate Fighting Championship — I wonder what would be the GSP (Georges St-Pierre) equivalent in the seafood ring?

On the one hand we have the mighty prawn, taking all comers. Prawn rings, so easy to thaw and serve with a jar of cocktail sauce, huddle in the corner at nearly every West Coast party. We've got prawn sushi, prawn stir-fries, barbecue prawns. Prawn souvlaki. Garlic prawns. Creole prawns. Deep-fried prawns. Prawns in paella, prawns in laksa, prawns in empañadas. Prawn cocktails, prawn crackers, prawn ceviche. You can even whip up prawn biscuits, Asian- or Mediterranean-style.

Prawns are so yummy, cheap (relatively speaking, for seafood), ubiquitous and easy to use, seems a cake-walk, make that a prawn cake-walk, for them to grab the UFC trophy for all-round contender.

On the other hand we have the feisty oyster. If they don't have as many forms and as many fans as prawns, those who are supporters are usually staunch defenders.

Here in the Pacific Northwest, the tough little oyster is elevating its profile thanks to top-notch establishments such as Bearfoot Bistro, with its annual oyster-shucking festival, as well as C and Blue Water Café in Vancouver putting quality raw oysters on the shell and on the dining map.

In the States you are way more likely to get turned on to oysters in various forms, stuffing a po' boy sandwich in New Orleans; as a platter of deep-fried oysters and chips, a big fave in San Diego; oysters Rockefeller at a posh hotel resto in New York City or oysters diablo in Austin, Texas. Once you get a taste for oysters, you can't get enough.

But in this neck of the woods, despite the many new oyster offerings boosting their popularity, I'd have to say it looks like prawns have the edge.

I was thinking about all this not long ago as we watched plate after plate of fresh- shucked oysters leave the bar at Smitty's Oyster House in Gibsons. With help from the capable hands of Nova Scotia native, Ian Peck, who placed a very close second in Bearfoot Bistro's annual oyster-shucking shucker-ama this year, people were sliding the little fellahs down faster than you could say "oyster knife."

At Smitty's and beyond, fresh, local B.C. oysters from nearby oyster farms in the Strait of Georgia are the order of the day: Beach Angels from Cortes Island; Black Pearls from Quadra. Sweet Fanny Bay oysters; salty, melon-y Buckley Bay oysters; Sawmill Bay oysters (get these at Bearfoot Bistro and Araxi). Joe's Golds; Kusshis and Little Wings. Wherever they come from, their names sound like poetry.

Even more beautiful is how sustainable oysters are. Years ago, I heard a show on CBC Radio's Ideas program in which an oyster farmer, who also happened to be a biologist, waxed eloquent for the entire hour about how unbelievably hard-working and good for the environment oysters are. It blew me away!

In a lesson we humans could take a page or three from, oysters actually leave the environment better than they found it.

As filter feeders, they "clean the water, remove nitrogen, accelerate denitrification, enhance water clarity, promote eelgrass survival, and provide excellent habitat for myriad juvenile fish and crustaceans," according to the East Coast Shellfish Growers Association. Sure, they may be just a little bit biased, but their take still aligns as tightly as the two halves of an oyster shell with that of the scientist on CBC.

Oysters can actually restore degraded marine environments, as scientists and oyster farmers have found out in projects from Chesapeake Bay on the Eastern Seaboard to Liberty Bay, Washington, where native Olympia oysters — found on the West Coast form Alaska to Mexico — have been set to work.

As a consumer, you just want to make sure you go after farmed oysters, especially ones certified by sustainable programs such as Vancouver Aquarium's Ocean Wise program. And as the Suzuki Foundation warns, steer away from wild oysters that have been caught via scallop dredge or tonging.

The Oyster, like its UFC rival, The Prawn, have been farmed for centuries, so we can easily observe these creatures' impact on the environment. That's where the championship round is a knock-out.

For the championship favourite, the prawn — and I use the term loosely here, as most of us do these days, to include commercially farmed shrimp, which are different biologically but have been swept up and re-branded in the prawn mania currently circling the planet, ergo our frozen "prawn" party rings even though they are actually made with shrimp — is also the champion of destruction.

The destruction of mangrove forests that protect shorelines in intertidal zones; the pollution and deterioration of vast bays and waterways; the flooding of coastal lands; spread of disease and agro-industrial waste; child labour; degraded human rights — you name it, you can lay it at the feet of farmed prawns.

It gets even worse that that: I was curious to see that Elizabeth May, the lone sitting member of the Green Party of Canada in our hallowed House of Commons, chose to write about prawn farming in one of her latest newsletters. In it, she cites a report from Island Tides, a thoughtful newspaper she contributes to which is based on lovely Pender Island, not far from all those B.C. oyster farms. It describes how one activist in India thought that of all the industries to come to her country — chemical plants, mining, industrial agriculture — the worst was prawn/shrimp farming. Protestors protesting the same there, and in Bangladesh and in Thailand and beyond, have been murdered, one beheaded, her head stuck on a pole as a warning to others.

All this churns now in my head like so much flotsam and jetsam in a tidal pool each time I read a menu list of appetizers or contemplate what to serve at our next bash. Is the champ going to be smoked oysters? Or prawns with mango salsa?

All the moreso given the latest Living Planet report from World Wildlife Fund out of London: Earth lost 50% of its wildlife in the past 40 years, says WWF. It's the ultimate winner-take-all UFC in which there won't be any winners, as we are certainly taking it all.

Glenda Bartosh is an award-winning journalist who is giving up on prawns and looking to use less of everything else.


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