WITH the start of the prawn season upon them tomorrow, the race is on among the Sunshine Coast's trawler operators.
In what is a crucial period for the state's multi-million-dollar seafood industry, dozens of local trawlers will set off tomorrow night to start harvesting the coveted catch.
Local prawn populations have been breeding under the protection of a shallow water no-go zone for the past six weeks but trawlers will now seek them out from their shallow ocean habitat, harvest them with 'otter nets' that drag the ocean floor and bring back the prized catch for the seafood-hungry Christmas holiday market.
Prawns breed in estuaries, around Moreton Bay and Tin Can Bay for example, then move into shallow water and, over the course of about six months, end up in water up to 100 fathoms (180m) deep.
With the harvest season approaching, boaties have been busy mending their nets, stocking up on fuel and supplies, and getting their kits in order for the big catch.
From tomorrow night they will fish shallow water up to 50 fathoms (90m), said Fisheries on the Spit owner Sandy Wood-Meredith.
The fisherman of more than 40 years' experience runs the Parkyn Parade fresh seafood and fish and chip shop, in Mooloolaba.
He said prawns accounted for about half his trade and, with Christmas approaching, fishers and seafood merchants vied for the prize of the catch - big king prawns.
"Everyone's counting on them but I don't know what's going to happen if there aren't enough," he said.
It wasn't that stocks were low, he said, but at the start of the season the prawns were small, whereas customers and therefore trawler operators wanted "the big ones", and they wanted them now.
The rush to scoop the big catch didn't quite match the species' natural growth cycle, he agreed, and the industry had always been in a conflict between serving customers the quantity of prawns they wanted, when they wanted, and waiting for the biggest prawns to grow.
Many improvements to his industry had been made, including the introduction of vessel monitoring systems that tracked trawlers and prevented poaching.
This meant there were fewer operators and a greater awareness of the restraint needed to preserve fishery sustainability.
Turtle and shark bycatch had also reduced with the introduction of escape flaps in nets.
As Mr Wood-Meredith spoke, the wharf behind his shop was buzzing as fishers prepared for their busiest time of the year.
EARLIER: PRAWNS are so popular at this time of year that even the glut likely to be delivered by trawlers to our local wharves won't go to waste, and the price won't come down either.
If you want cheap prawns this summer, you'll need to settle for the smaller ones.
With the start of the prawn harvesting season on Sunday night, trawler operators have today been busily preparing their vessels for their first dash to shallow waters.
The impending Christmas rush means many of these operators will be hoping for a 500kg daily haul, says Fisheries on the Spit owner Sandy Wood-Meredith.
Mr Wood-Meredith said he would compete with other seafood buyers from Brisbane and other major cities who flock to the Sunshine Coast at this time of year, and pay "top dollar" for prawns caught off in our waters.
Even at the local seafood markets King prawns will stay at around $40 per kg, he predicted.
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