Hardcore prawns: trashing tropical seas for a cheap treat

Posted by Willie — 28 February 2013 at 5:24pm - Comments

When I was little, salmon and shrimps were posh, fancy food, served up at celebrations and the like. Fast forward a few decades and both of those have descended to becoming everyday food, available in pre-packed sandwiches and cheap meals in every supermarket.

But cheap and available at what real cost?

Tropical prawns and shrimps (shrimp and prawn are pretty much interchangeable names) have always been on the red list for us, because we know all too well that the story behind these ubiquitous menu items is a lot more complicated.

If they are caught at sea, they are caught in fine-meshed nets (because they are small, they have to be) which can have staggering rates of bycatch. Sometimes a meagre 5% of the catch is the target species.

So, if tropical shrimp fishing isn’t good, perhaps farming them is better? Farming sounds bucolic and reasonable, but when it comes to the aquaculture of carnivorous species like prawns there are a lot of concerns (pdf).

From a simple environmental economic viewpoint, shrimp farming doesn't make much sense: the amount of shrimp you get is less than the amount of sea creatures you have to catch to feed them. It’s a net loss to our oceans, and increases pressure rather than decreasing it.

But, as the new series of Hugh’s Fish Fight and a hard-hitting video from the Ecologist (watch it above) both show, the reality of what goes into that feed is also a worry.

So-called trash fish includes everything from tiny baby fish upwards, including things like seahorses, octopus and small sharks, all caught in indiscriminate nets. Ironically, the trash fish is often caught in nets fishing for wild shrimps. It’s not just fish that are trashed in the process, it’s entire ecosystems.

What’s caught that isn’t marketable is processed down into innocuous-looking meal and used as feed for farmed shrimp.

Then there are other well-documented environmental crimes associated with shrimp farming, like the devastation of mangroves and pollution of local waterways.

Plus there are some heinous reports of human rights abuses linked to shrimp and prawn farming too.

Is that something consumers expect when they pick up prawns in a supermarket, or order them at a restaurant? Is cheap shrimp worth it? I don’t think so.

So if you still want to eat shrimp, then you should think about a few things.

Know where it’s from, and what’s gone into it. Make sure you’re buying shrimp with a clear and understood chain of custody. Probably the best option there is to look for the stuff that has organic certification.

Choose something else. Prawns and shrimps are not just tropical critters, we catch them in British waters too. Maybe we should be looking at developing a taste for what’s around our own coast instead. Pot or creel-caught langoustine seems like a good place to start.

Don’t scrimp on shrimp. It costs too much at the other end.

About Willie

Hi, I'm Willie, I work with Greenpeace on all things ocean-related

Twitter: @williemackenzie

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