Growers' Insights: Freshwater prawns

Farmers say this is a safe, sustainable seafood that is swimming in popularity and profitability.

Published in FSD Update

The terms “shrimp” and “prawn” are often used interchangeably, although various organizations emphasize the slight distinctions between the two. But for the farmers that raise them, it’s all about taste and texture. “A prawn is not a shrimp,” clarifies Charlene Jacobs, an owner and manager of Harvest of the Great Spirit Prawn Farm, in Clinton, N.C., and president of the American Prawn Cooperative. “A prawn’s flavor and texture is comparable to lobster.”

Farm-raised, freshwater prawns (the species Macrobrachium rosenbergii, also called the Malaysian prawn or giant river prawn) are designated a “Best Choice” by the Monterey Bay Aquarium Seafood Watch program, and the 200 million gallons of oil spilt in the Gulf in 2010 certainly enhanced farm-raised prawns’ status as a safe, sustainable seafood, when ocean-raised shellfish were covered in crude.

Dolores Fratesi, an owner/operator with husband, Steve, of Lauren Farms, in Leland, Miss., produces an average of 800 pounds of prawns per acre. “No chemicals are ever used,” she says of the small-pond, free-range, locally fed prawns that she raises, alongside other crops on their 500-acre farm. “Having a free-range environment requires a minimum of feed, as prawns eat the natural productivity of ponds (plant life and algae), which is stimulated by an organic fertilization practice that uses corn gluten pellets, range cubes and alfalfa pellets.”

Growing conditions

Water quality is crucial. Jacobs’ pond water is checked twice daily for pH, dissolved oxygen (DO), the depth of the bloom (how deep you can see in the water) and water temperature. “The alkalinity and hardness of the water are checked weekly,” Jacobs says. “If the balance is incorrect, the prawn can’t survive.”

Brenda Lyons is the owner and operator of Lyons Fisheries, a land-locked farm in south central Illinois. “During a good year, we will raise 1,100 pounds of freshwater prawns,” Lyons says. “We harvest the prawns by draining our specifically designed ponds. We recycle all the pond water into a reservoir and then pump it back into the production ponds.”

Prawns are kept alive in chilled, aerated tanks after giving them a thorough washing in a clean water bath. “Then we quickly chill-kill them in an ice slurry right before freezing them to keep that sweet, mild flavor in the tail meat,” she adds.

Price points

According to Fratesi, U.S. farm-raised prawns are a niche market, not a commodity market, and prices have held steady for many years.

Lyons says, “We price our shrimp based on the cost of juveniles, feed prices, electricity and anything that goes into the cost of raising the prawns. Previously, we’d kept the price at $9 per pound for four years, but in 2013 we got $10 per pound for fresh, live prawns.”

After processing and packaging, the prices vary due to grade or how many prawns it takes to make a pound. “It would take almost two pounds of whole prawns to equal one pound of tail meat. Tail meat varies from $18.95 downward,” Jacobs says. “Whole prawns can sell from $14.95 down to $6.50, depending on the grade.

“Currently the market prefers whole prawns over tail meat,” Jacobs says. “Two years ago, the American Prawn Cooperative started blast freezing the whole prawns with legs and claws intact. This decision was driven by market demand,” she says. 

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