The Shrimp of the British Coast

Shrimp are served in at least four out of every five restaurants, and, sold in a vast variety of convenience meals, it is now Britain’s favorite seafood. Their popularity extends worldwide. As many as sixty countries fish or farm as many different species, and most of those we eat are imported. Some species are more correctly called “shrimps”, but tend to be known to the British public as “prawns”.

Without being a considerable expert it would be extremely difficult to know the life history of those shrimp which end up in your curry or cocktail. The best quality shrimp, often sold shell-on, are caught in cold Arctic waters. Many others are fished out of warm seas in the Far East, or off the coast of South America. And you might well be cooking farmed shrimp when preparing most of your shrimp recipes.

Shrimp farming thrives in Asia; many of these farms trap young shrimp, newly emerged from their larval stage in the sea, and fatten them up in ponds. Now a new industry is emerging which hatches and grows the shrimp from eggs. There are more than fifteen hundred hatcheries in Taiwan alone.

At present, however, most of the world’s shrimp are still fished from the sea, in vast quantities, and meet their ends by a diversity of methods. Some are boiled alive in sea water, some are immersed in cold brine and frozen, others are air-blast frozen.

Can shrimp suffer pain? There is no reason to think not. Crustaceans do have nervous systems, though less sophisticated than those of fish, and respond to noxious stimuli. There has been little research in this area, but all experts are agreed that a small creature, like a shrimp, will die much more quickly than a large creature, like a lobster, when subjected to a change in body temperature. Shrimp are thought to die “near instantaneously” or in a few seconds in boiling water. Death by freezing may take longer, but could be less cruel. Researcher find that temperatures below normal slow down the systems and movements of sea creatures, and could induce a state of torpor.

The ubiquitous “scampi”, now as common a feature of many homes, is a creature called the Norway lobster – or sometimes the Dublin Bay prawn. In size it measures midway between lobster and shrimp, around four inches.

The Norway lobster lives free in the sea around British coasts and is captured in large quantities, mainly off Scotland. Most are caught in a specially designed light trawl, other are netted along with other fish, and some of the larger specimens are trapped in pots, like lobsters.

Although the French suck out the contents of the heads with great gusto, only the tail of the Norway lobster is usually consumed. This, along with its tendency to discolor rapidly and to develop off-flavors if left intact, dictates a different fate to that of most captured crustaceans. The head and shell are usually twisted off by hand, on deck, leaving only the tails to be landed.

The British brown shrimp tends to live close to shore and is often abundant in estuaries. Most are trawled, either by boat or tractor at low tide, from the Wash, the Thames Estuary, the Solway Firth and, of course, Morecambe Bay. Technically, many of the prawns the British eat are more correctly known as shrimps, but this small brownish crustacean, laboriously prised form its shell by the patient seaside holiday maker, is most commonly known as such. One shrimp provides precisely one calorie. Multiply this by vast numbers if you pot it in lashings of butter.