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What’s happening to the world’s coldwater prawn stocks? 2 minutes

  Oct 17, 2016

If you’ve taken delight in eating a prawn sandwich or a prawn cocktail, the chances are you have been wowed by the sweet taste and firm texture of the Northern coldwater prawn (Pandalus borealis).

Accounting for more than 70 percent of global coldwater prawn landings, the Northern coldwater prawn is by far the most widely traded species in the family. Instantly recognisable for their bright pinkish-red colour that results post-cooking, these small shrimp have long been a popular choice in shops and restaurants around the world.

As well as being an extremely versatile seafood product, coldwater prawns tick many boxes for health-minded consumers. They are a good source of protein and selenium, low in calories, and have a high vitamin and mineral content, including vitamin B12, zinc and iodine.


Unfortunately, supplies of these coveted wild crustaceans have been in steady decline over the last decade – from a peak of more than 450,000 tonnes in 2004 to around 235,000 tonnes last year, meaning the species now only account for around 5 percent of the world’s total shrimp supply.

The world’s declining catch is attributed to a number of factors, among them the larger and expanding stocks of cod in certain regions, which not only eat coldwater prawns but have also taken over important prawn breeding grounds. At the same time, global climate change and rising sea temperatures are causing these crustaceans to hatch and develop faster, which experts say contributes to the mortality rate. Prolonged periods of harsh, wintery weather can also affect supplies as trawlers are prevented from going to sea to fish.

In line with the decreased availability and strong demand for coldwater prawns, prices have remained at high levels for several months. This demand has been further exacerbated by the reduced availability of farmed warmwater shrimp over the past three years.


The coldwater prawn is, as its name suggests, found in cold parts of the Atlantic and Pacific Oceans, and is most abundant in the natural coldwater habitats surrounding Norway, Iceland, Greenland and Canada. They live at depths of between 10 and 500 metres, usually on soft muddy bottoms, feeding primarily on zooplankton. As such, bottom trawling is the most commonly used fishing method.

Because they live in icy waters, coldwater prawns grow slowly, with a natural lifespan of about six years. While the long growth-period in this environment doesn’t result in a large size, it does contribute to its distinct flavour.


The two largest suppliers of this species are Canada and Greenland, making up around 85 percent of the global catch, followed by the United States, Norway and Iceland. Indeed, it is Greenland’s single-most important fisheries resource and fishermen there have been welcoming some early signs of biomass improvement in the past year.

Most coldwater prawns are cooked and flash frozen within minutes of being brought on board modern fishing vessels, locking in all the natural flavour and nutrients.

Shell-on prawns are predominantly sold in China, Sweden and Russia, whereas the United Kingdom and Sweden are the main markets for cooked and peeled.

The biggest market in the world, though, is the United Kingdom, which imported more than 40,000 tonnes of the product with a value of GBP 316 million (€367 million) last year. This trade is thanks largely to coldwater prawns being a traditional component of many Christmas menus.

Despite the greatly reduced catches, most coldwater prawn fisheries are responsibly managed, which is evidenced by the availability of Marine Stewardship Council certified products in the marketplace.