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So you’re out at dinner, and the only thing on the menu that isn’t from a hoofed animal is prawn. You don’t feel like vegetarian tonight, so you go with the prawn dish. At least these little dudes haven’t suffered in a slaughterhouse. And they don’t exactly expel a lot of gas now do they? Surely they’re a ‘better’ option than that meat dish. Think again.  Sustainable Table’s Sofia Strandberg takes a look at one of the world’s most controversial industries, tropical prawn farming – an industry responsible for its fair share of environmental destruction, and one that is rife with severe human rights abuses…

Remember when prawns were treated like gold and only whipped out on very special occasions – birthdays, wedding anniversaries, Christmas lunches… Well that was then. Nowadays prawns are everywhere. They’re cheap enough to be chucked on or in anything: curries, pasta, sushi, pizza (a garlic prawn pizza can cost a mere $15, for instance). What happened? How did the prawn lose its glory and become (almost) as cheap as chips?

In the 1990s the world’s tropical and subtropical regions experienced a boom in industrial aquaculture (fish farming that is), which came to replace traditional, low-intensity farming. Today, Thailand, China, Bangladesh, Ecuador and Brazil are the largest producers of farmed prawns (known as tiger prawns, vannamei prawns, gambas, and giant shrimp). A total of 75% of the world’s farmed prawns are produced in Asia alone, mainly for export to Europe, Japan, the US, and Australia. In fact, 50% of the prawns we consume here are imported1 (and sold at a much cheaper price than local prawns).

The problem is that whilst we’re paying just a few bucks per kilo, the environment and the prawn-farming communities pay a significantly higher price. Environmental destruction, food insecurity, human rights abuses and illegal land-seizure are just a few examples of the problems associated with prawn farming in Asia and Latin America. In fact, the business method used is so destructive it’s often referred to as ‘rape and run’2.

Land clearing

In order to make room for the ponds in which prawns are farmed, vast areas of mangrove forests are chopped down, destroying valuable ecosystems (including bird habitats and fish populations), and consequently the livelihood of the local community. This mangrove-clearing also releases large amounts of carbon that is stored in the mangrove soil. In fact new research shows that so much carbon is released that 100 grams of prawn raised on a typical Asian farm has a carbon footprint of 198 kilograms of CO2. This figure doesn’t even include the energy involved in feeding, transporting and processing, yet is still more than 10 times the amount produced by 100 grams of beef that has been raised on cleared rainforest land.

Image from the Smash and Grab report 

Chemical pollutants

Not only is the carbon footprint of this little crustacean humongous, the chemicals and antibiotics the prawns are doused in pollute the land and waterways. In fact, after just 3-9 years, the farm and the surrounding environment is so degraded by a build-up of sludge and soil acidification that it can’t be used any more and the farm is moved elsewhere (from then on it takes 35-40 years for the soil to recover4). Hence the term ‘rape and run’.

Community impact

On the human side of things, the establishment of farms often leads to conflicts with the local population over land rights and access to natural resources, leading to human rights abuses, intimidation, and even murder (in at least eleven countries, people protesting the expansion of prawn aquaculture have been murdered). In Bangladesh alone, over 150 lives are thought to have been lost3. Many farms have also been found to have terrible working conditions and are rife with sexual abuse, child labour and exploitation. Just recently, 2,000 workers in a Thai prawn processing plant (a major supplier for Walmart) protested against management’s decision to further slash their meagre wages, wages that were already failing to cover their basic needs. Many of these workers are victims of human trafficking and are still legally and financially trapped at the factory5.

What about Australian prawns?

The good news is, we can vote for a fairer system with our wallets. Just by not eating imported farmed prawns, and choosing local Australian prawns instead, we can indirectly support the preservation of mangrove forest and wildlife, and consequently the livelihoods of the local people. But before you run off and grab any ol’ Aussie prawns, there are a couple of things to consider…

Australian farmed prawns
While prawn farms on Australian soil come with fewer social implications, the environmental footprint of most of these farms is, by no means, small. The fish feed used is often made from wild-caught fish, putting more strain on our already threatened oceans. If you want to know more about how fish meal is produced check out this clip.

Wild-caught Australian prawns
The catching of wild prawns also comes with serious issues, relating to by-catch (trawling for prawns generates the highest number of by-catch of all fisheries) and depleting stocks.

Testament to this, the Australian Marine Conservation Society (AMCS) lists Australian farmed prawns and most wild-caught prawns in their ‘think twice’ category.

So then, what can I do?

Prawns don’t have to be completely off the menu. Whilst imported prawns are definitely on the no-no list, and we should even think twice about most Aussie farmed and wild-caught prawns, a few ‘better choice’ options do exist:

1. Western King Prawns from the Spencer Gulf Prawn Trawl Fishery in South Australia have been assessed as sustainable by the Australian Conservation Foundation.

2. Haul-caught School and Bay (Greentail) Prawns from NSW are listed as a better choice by the AMCS.

3. Australia’s Northern Prawn Fishery has received Marine Stewardship Council Certification for it’s banana, tiger and endeavour prawns from the waters surrounding Northern Queensland, Northern Territory and Northern WA, so look out for those.

4. And lastly (yet very importantly), when dining out, remember to ask where the prawns are from. Because, in the words of Canadian journalist Taras Grescoe – author of the book Bottomfeeder: How to Eat Ethically in a World of Vanishing Seafood:

“If you’re eating cheap shrimp today, it almost certainly comes from a turbid, pesticide- and antibiotic-filled, virus-laden pond in the tropical climes of one of the world’s poorest nations.”

Something to think twice about.

How do you feel about the prawn farming industry? Were you aware that it came with so much controversy?