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Prawns, an interview with the Environmental Justice Foundation

Prawns, an interview with the Environmental Justice Foundation


Juliet Savigear

I imagine that a few of you, like me, have been watching the recent BBC series “Indian Ocean with Simon Reeve”. In the series he travelled around the edge of the Indian Ocean, where environmental issues were constantly making their mark felt and this was obviously a subject of particular interest to Simon. It was on his travels around Orissa in India and then over in Bangladesh, where he covered the subject of prawn fishing and the alternative, seemingly better alternative, of prawn farming, that I came to choose the subject of this issue’s Eco Chat.

How many of us are aware that prawn fishing uses fine mesh trawling nets that are dragged across vast areas of the ocean floor killing pretty much everything in its path? Are you also aware that these nets have one of the highest ratios of bycatch and that shrimp trawled fisheries are responsible for around one third of the world’s discarded bycatch despite producing only 2% of the global seafood. Even in Europe, the fine meshed trawl nets used for brown shrimp fishing have been responsible for high levels of bycatch, including many juvenile of commercial species. Brown shrimp fisheries have caused losses of 6-16% of the North Sea spawning stock of plaice. As these non-target fish are discarded, potential landings lost are calculated to be around 12,000 tonnes a year, with a market value of €17.9million. Annual losses of sole and cod are estimated at €3.9 million and €2.7 million respectively (Source: Environmental Justice Foundation).

In the tropics, up to 10kg of non-target marine organisms can be caught (and are often discarded) to obtain just 1kg of shrimp.

With the hugely damaging effects of prawn fishing it would seem that prawn farming would be a sensible alternative. However, the effects that prawn farming
 is having on countries that
have embraced the promised wealth that would come with this once luxury food item has had devastating effects on both the coastal marine environments and the communities involved. So I contacted the Environment Justice Foundation, who run a number of campaigns that are concerned with the protection of people and the planet. Prawn fisheries is just one of them.

JS: Can you explain what is involved in the creation of a coastal prawn farm?

EJF: The most common procedure for commercial, intensive shrimp farms has simply been to clear the land, remove the existing vegetation, construct the holding tanks and flood them with salt water devastating the environment and all too often the local communities dependent
on it. Shrimp farming does not have to be destructive, but all
too often it is. Over the past decade EJF has documented how unscrupulous operations have destroyed highly productive and important coastal mangroves home to countless species and vital to the life-cycle of many others, while also providing
a sustainable resource which poor local communities have depended on for food and livelihoods.

JS: What are the main countries involved in the (detrimental) practice of coastal prawn farming?

EJF: Shrimp is a multi-billion global industry and shrimp aquaculture is currently the fastest growing food production sector in the world, cultivated in over 50 countries with over 90% of production coming
from developing countries. Asia produces over 75% of the world’s shrimp; the largest producers are the ‘Big Four’: China, Indonesia, Thailand and vietnam. The largest exporter is Thailand and the rest of the production is provided mainly by Latin America: Brazil, Ecuador and Mexico. All these countries have cleared mangroves for the introduction of larger-scale shrimp farming.

JS: What key impacts on the marine environment is coastal prawn farming having?

EJF: The negative impacts are manifest and multiple; in some regions they have been truly devastating. Perhaps foremost among EJF’s concerns has
been the impact on mangroves. Mangroves not only support local subsistence economies
but offer “ecosystem services” such as recycling of nutrients, coastal protection against floods and hurricanes, and provision of breeding and feeding grounds for fish and crustaceans. It is extremely important to recognise that globally nearly two thirds of all fish harvested depend upon the health of wetlands, sea grasses and coral reefs at key stages in their life-cycle and that shrimp farms have been proven to directly threaten these environments.

There is also a profound problem with so-called bycatch. Bycatch is the name given for unwanted organisms that are caught and subsequently discarded when fishing for other species. Bycatch rates of shrimp fry (the larvae of shrimp) collection in Bangladesh is among the highest of any fishery in the world with as many as 1,000 non-target individuals harvested for every shrimp fry caught.

Similarly, the use of wild-caught fish to feed shrimp where far more wild fish by weight is used than shrimp produced, is putting unsustainable pressure on wild fish stocks.

Drainage congestion and water logging which are outcomes of coastal embankment building, often build up salinity. The
result of the increase in salinity
is its impact on agricultural productivity and other vegetation and the severe decline in the quality of drinking water.

JS: You mention on your site
that many areas that have been used for prawn farming are being abandoned. Does the demand from Europe, US and Japan mean that constantly new areas of mangroves are being destroyed to open new prawn farms? Where is the future of this market going if changes are not made?

EJF: The abandonment of
land usually occurs in areas where intensive shrimp farming is practised under poor management practices. Farm productivity declines due to large chemical input, disease and pollution. This is an indirect impact of the growing demand of Western consumers which encouraged more intensive, chemically concentrated and invasive practices instead of the traditional extensive and near- organic techniques.

Traditional, sustainable and equitable shrimp farming practices must be encouraged and made financially beneficial. These tasks fall on the international donor community mitigated by local NGOs and
the Bangladeshi Government with the full involvement of local communities and by prioritising their needs. At the same time
we need to see a zero-tolerance approach in all the major consuming markets to shrimp that cannot be proven to have been produced in this way – killing off the demand for cheap, unethical shrimp in the major consuming countries will have as much impact as any development aid or effort in the producing ones.

JS: Do the chemicals, pesticides and antibiotics used regularly in prawn farming have any potential effects on the consumer?

EJF: The short, simple answer is: yes.

Some of the in-puts used are toxic if not applied correctly, some – such as antibiotics – can be highly damaging in other ways. In many commercial shrimp aquaculture systems, farmers stock shrimp at high densities and use high levels of feed, pesticides, antibiotics and other chemicals in order to maximise profits and combat disease. Japan, Taiwan, Philippines and Thailand, among others, have been encouraged by growing Western demand to switch to the intensive type of production. Concerns surrounding such pollutants include their persistence, toxicity, stimulation of resistance, nutrient enrichment and possible effects on the health of farm workers and consumers.

JS: Are the chemicals essential for prawn farming or are there alternative ‘safe’ products that can be used?

EJF: No these chemicals are not “essential” and there is a very strong case to say they are not even desirable. Extensive, traditional shrimp culture requires much smaller financial and chemical input. The most common organic fertilizers are animal manures, rice bran, compost and sewage. This type of shrimp farming can be found in Bangladesh, Thailand, Indonesia, Malaysia and the Philippines.
It is most typical of unregulated, small-scale shrimp farms. These farms are not certified organic, and their owners may rely on home-made chemicals but usually antibiotics are unavailable to them due to their price.

Extensive shrimp farms have
the possibility to be organically certified without great changes to their already existing system of production. Yield per unit area is low, but so too are the costs of in-puts and it can provide a sustainable alternative to the use of large amount of chemicals and antibiotics designed to unnaturally increase stocking density, size and rate of survival.

JS: Is there a sustainable way of farming prawns?

EJF: Arguably yes. These would be fully enclosed systems which are not situated in mangroves
or reliant on clearing fragile and valuable environments which employ organic methods and low intensity and shunning the “get rich quick” high-yield, high impact approaches that have led to so much devastation and have proven largely unsustainable.

The most environmentally sustainable method of aquaculture is the extensive method which relies on very
little or no chemical input and does not strain environmental resources. However, the salinization of land and ground water remains a pressing issue
in this case. Returning to low- intensity, traditional poly-culture: rice paddy cultivation alongside aquaculture which relies on the natural flow of tide would be the most beneficial for the livelihoods of local communities and for the regeneration of the environment.

This requires broadly the reduction of market demand and an equal distribution of profit through-out the supply chain. Equitable distribution is crucial as small-scale farmers who make up the majority of producers
in developing countries, such
as Bangladesh, are a largely unregistered, informal workforce who receive a fraction of the real price of shrimp sold in the West.

JS: With regards to prawn trawling – are there any sustainable ways of fishing prawns from the sea that don’t involve churning up vast areas of the bottom of our seas?

EJF: Shrimp trawling has all too often come at an astonishing environmental cost. Shrimp trawlers particularly those in the tropics can catch over 400 marine species in their nets. These non-target “bycatch” are commonly discarded. Shrimp fisheries typically produce a bycatch-to-shrimp ratio of 5:1 in temperate areas and 10:1 in the tropics (although much higher ratios have been found such as 21:1 in the Australian Northern Prawn Fishery).

There are trawling techniques that are less damaging than others. For example, demersal otter trawls commonly throw away over 30% of their catches (by weight) while beam trawls throw away up to 70% of their catches (by weight). However, consumers should be avoiding shrimp caught with any type of trawling.

The least damaging and the least commonly used form of fishing are with pots and traps which usually take the form of floating baskets tied together. It is a largely sustainable and selective method of shrimp catching because it attracts particular species depending on its position and the type of bait used.

JS: Is it OK to eat cold water prawns?

EJF: Some cold water shrimp fisheries have lower impacts than others, some are better managed and some are working to improve on their practices but at this time EJF does not “recommend” any.

Despite the rise of labelling
and certification schemes the different standards and criteria make it very hard for a consumer to have confidence and clarity. If you do feel compelled to eat any prawns, then perhaps Canadian and north-east Arctic is the
best place to look. But much rather ask your supplier or your supermarket to prove their supply chain is sustainable and that they know when, where, how and with what impact the shrimp they sell was caught.

JS: Are there any warm water prawns that are OK to eat?

EJF: EJF does not recommend any warm water wild-caught shrimp fisheries. The toll on other marine species including those vital to food security and those charismatic species such as sharks and turtles is well documented and still ample cause to say no to shrimp.

The impact of farmed shrimp is similarly recorded and surely must make any one question their “need” to eat them.

JS: What about our own Scottish langoustines – are these sustainably caught?

EJF: Nephrops or langoustines are generally considered to be caught sustainably. There are three fisheries under assessment and one under review by the Marine Stewardship Council (MSC). However, none of them are fully certified as of now.

JS: Are there any important points that you think I should raise in my article that I have not covered?

EJF: Beyond the negative environmental impacts and potential effects on the consumer tropical shrimp farming (although a lucrative global business) can mean exploitation, labour and human rights abuses to millions of small-scale producers in the developing world. Western consumers, by being more aware of where their shrimp comes from and under what circumstances it is produced, can encourage the major stakeholders to create a more socially equitable system by making sure that the profit generated reaches the lower levels of the supply chain.

JS: What can readers do to help prevent the horrendous practices that are going on to produce one of the most popular foods on the supermarket shelf?

EJF: One principal idea that consumers need to realise is that they have more power
than they might imagine. By asking questions, by preferring sustainable brands in their choice, by voicing their opinions and showing their support to organizations such as EJF they can put tremendous pressure on policy making and the industry to change their ways for the better. By demanding shrimp on their plates which has been equitably and sustainably produced they can drive demand to achieve these vital changes in the lives of millions of people around the world.

More information about prawn farming and other campaigns: EJF

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