The recent decision by Barnaby Joyce to ban the importation of green prawns came after an an outbreak of White Spot Disease (WSD) was detected on prawn farms in south-east Queensland in December. The Federal Government's suspension of green prawn imports came into effect on January 8.
The affected farmers have laid the blame on imported product as the source of the infection. The Federal Department of Agriculture confirmed 73 imported consignments had tested positive for white spot between May and December last year, although they were sent back or destroyed.
To gain an understanding of the enormity of the ban a single distributor in Sydney imports 800 tonnes of raw prawns from Thailand per year.
Australian grown green prawn prices are now climbing and further increases are expected in the lead up to Easter. On the South Coast we have two lakes renowned for their prawns. Brou Lake and Coila Lake. In light of the green prawn ban it would make sense for any farmer to look at this as a windfall and reassess how he/she farms their stock and ensures it trickles on to the market at maximum price. But Coila Lake and Brou Lake are not managed and instead they are annually ravaged with no quotas set in place for professionals. The the addition of greedy recreational fishers, every last prawn is plundered before they can even reach maturity in market size. These lakes MUST have quotas as the "farming" of them is piss-poor with everyone cutting everyone else's throat to get in as quick as possible before all the prawns are gone. And then they come back and do it all again for the bream fish stocks. It seems as though we have become the Stupid Nation outsourcing our prawn demand to countries that have very poor standards in food hygiene and barely the capacity to meet our ever increasing demands. Australia's hunger for cheap imported prawns comes at a cost very few are aware of as they tuck into their laksas or spin their prawns over a BBQ. There is a very high price paid in human suffering and environmental destruction in some of the main countries that supply our prawns. Instead of taking "tourism day trips" to South East Asian orphanages Australians should venture instead to see a prawn farm and inspect where the water and prawn feed come from and where it goes - and then visit the prawn handling areas. The latest ploy of some unscrupulous South East Asian prawn farmers is to plump up their green prawns with an injection of gel into the brain cavity and under the tail and back scales that adds more weight to return more income. That is all fine if you don't eat the head however many cooks use the heads and shells for sauce reduction. In 2016, workers in Vietnam were filmed injecting their tiger prawns with carboxymethyl cellulose - a gelatin which is not considered to be dangerous. Vietnam is one of the largest sources of imported prawns in Australia. Readers might be interested in the following video.
The Australian Government keeps poor import data collection and doesn't record key import details regarding prawns imported into the country and without accurate information consumers at supermarkets, fish shops, restaurants and takeaways have little hope of knowing where their seafood comes from, how it was produced, or even what species it is.
Above: Fish farming in Vietnam. Houseboat rafts with rearing cages underneath.
Try it for yourself - next time you are out ask where the prawns come from. Sadly no one will be able to tell you anything other than where it was packed unless it is known and guaranteed to be Australian and clearly indicated as such on the packaging. The truth of the matter is that most cafes and restaurants simply can't afford to have Australian prawns on their menus. Importing prawns from developing countries simply because they are cheap is not sustainable for the planet, on the environment where they are farmed and on our own health. As reported by SBS in their excellent documentary "Why do we eat so many imported prawns?" :
"Prawns in East Asia may be fed a high-protein prawn feed five times a day. This is to encourage speedy growth so they get to our table quickly. Prawn feed is produced in a factory using trash fish (reduced to a fishmeal) as one of its ingredients. Trashfish is wild fish that have been trawled from the sea floor and it includes juvenile fish. Fishing trawlers use nets to scrape the ocean floor for trashfish. The nets gather up everything in their path including crustaceans, sea stars, sea urchins and even baby turtles. Trawlers’ nets are responsible for environmental destruction on coral reefs in South-East Asia."
At a local level we know that there are questions around the way we manage our own wild prawn industry however we do have controls of the chemicals used on our farmland which might make it into our waterways and we have immediate controls to close our industries down to reduce risk when there is flooding as is the case with our oyster industry or with algae blooms as was recently witnessed in Eden. And we do know that our own prawn farms in Queensland are highly regulated to a world standard. There was a proposal a long time back to section off part of Coila Lake for a prawn farm. Tuross Lakes Preservation Group, with the support of the community, was able to run a successful campaign to stop this aquaculture venture saying it would have interfered with established commercial & recreational prawning & fishing, and other water-based pursuits, and could also have posed some serious environmental impacts due to the need to regularly feed the prawns, raising the nutrient level in a closed lake. So instead of "farming" our local prawns under Australian controls we now choose to "pose serious environmental impacts" somewhere else and "raise the nutrient level" of someone else's already highly polluted water and then we eat it in vast quantities because it is cheap. So next time you ask for some prawns, at the supermarket, cafe or takeaway ask yourself the question "Where are these prawns from?" But then maybe it is just easier not to care.