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Harvesting Alaska: Shrimping in Prince William Sound

By Emily Carlson 8:08 AM July 17, 2017

When you think of harvesting from the ocean this time of year, most people think of fish like salmon and halibut. However, for many people in Prince William Sound, it’s all about the shrimp.

At first, it was an excuse for Emmie and Mark Swanson to get out on the water. Mark is a retired Coast Guard commander, and their boat, the Swedish phrase for ‘sailing summer cottage,’ is their relaxing retreat. That is until they discovered that shrimping was addicting. Their enthusiasm was high, but Mark and Emmie found they had a lot to learn.

“Their whole theory is that you set your pots where other people set their pots because I don’t want to gross you out but, shrimp are kind of like cockroaches, they go where there’s food,” said Mark Swanson.

The two tried a lot of spots before they settled on one about 50 yards from shore and 250 feet deep. The current can be strong in Prince William Sound, and Mark and Emmie lost a lot of their pots.

“At first, we thought, ‘Oh, someone is stealing our shrimp pots,’ or, ‘someone is pulling our shrimp pots.’ We were just setting them on the slope and the tide would come in and they would just float away.”

Seven years later, the Swansons are seasoned shrimpers. They learned they had to drop their pots in a sheltered spot away from the current and have gotten used to the potent smell of kibble and herring bait.

“If we get a gallon we’re pretty happy. A gallon is about 50 shrimp.”

Between their four pots, that’s exactly how many we landed. There are five species of shrimp in Alaska, and today we caught three: striped, spotted and pink. Since shrimp are bottom feeders, Emmie rinses them in salt water, then throws them in fresh water, where they start to change color from gray to a bright pink.

Then it’s time to rip the heads off because the best part of this whole experience is about to happen. Emmie fires up the grill and as she reaches for the tub of shrimp, she accidentally flings the entire catch onto the floor of the boat. She shrieks as she quickly picks up every last shrimp and puts them on the grill. In Emmie’s boat, we follow the five-second rule. (After all, Mark is a fanatic about cleaning and scrubbing the floor.)

Now, it’s time to eat. The gigantic shrimp are plump, succulent and sweet tasting. Emmie likes to eat them simply: all she did for preparation was dump a few shakes of garlic salt and throws them right in the cooker. The biggest one is the best: there is so much meat, it takes several bites to finish off and as I lick the juice from my fingers.

Emmie declares, “These shrimp are better than lobster!”

I have to agree. You can’t beat Prince William Sound shrimp cooked on the boat you just pulled them out of the water on, 10 minutes after they left the ocean. They’re so good, they rarely make it off Emmie and Mark’s boat.

Here are some more notes on the rules and regulations of shrimping: the season runs from April 15 to Sept. 15. You are allowed five pots per person, with a maximum of five per vessel, and you can harvest as many shrimp as you can catch. Whittier and Valdez are the most popular places to shrimp. Alaska Department of Fish and Game says in 2004, about 11,000 pounds of shrimp were harvested from about 1,600 permit holders.

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