They don’t seem to elicit much sympathy and you wouldn’t want them scuttling around your skirting boards but prawns (shrimps) are ubiquitous across the world’s waters. Northern cold oceans or warmer southern seas, along coastlines and in estuaries, even out at deeper depths they’re there. Turn over a stone in our own lakes and rivers and you’ll likely see a tiny, fresh-water shrimp flipping its way to safety.
With thousands of different species and near the bottom of the food chain, these little creatures (Penaeidae) make an essential contribution to maintaining a stable ecological balance in the seas. What a tragedy that through no fault of their own they have become one of the greatest threats to marine ecology and drag in their wake slavery, dispossession, landlessness, brutality and death.
Driving these disasters is Westerners’ appetite for these little pink crescents of animal protein – people who are already collapsing under a surfeit of the stuff – and unscrupulous governments in poorer countries who are chasing this fools’ gold to boost their balance of payments.
Once fished only in the wild, the 1970s saw the start of an explosive big bang that is still expanding as intensive prawn ponds spread across Asian and South American countries like a disease. It is here that prime conditions exist – the warm brackish water of mangrove swamps that is the prawns favoured home. It is mainly just two species that tickle Western palates, P. veannanmei (Pacific white prawn) and P. monodon (king or giant tiger prawns).
Thailand is the principal supplier but there is sizeable production in surrounding countries such as Vietnam and China and also Indonesia, India and Bangladesh. Across the other side of the Pacific the main players are Honduras, Nicaragua and Ecuador, amongst others.
The demand has been incredible! In 2013, around 3.4 million tons were intensively farmed but this was matched by almost as many wild-caught prawns, bringing the total to 6.6 million tons. By comparison, the combination of wild and farmed shrimp in 1988 was just1.8 million tons, with wild fish predominating. How the heck was such a phenomenal increase facilitated? Mostly by industrialised, intensive farms and tearing up mangrove swamps to accommodate them.
Mangroves are peculiar-looking, broad-leaved trees that stand up on a tangle of roots like so many triffids, forming a wide, almost impenetrable barrier between land and sea, interspersed with open channels. Tidal, murky and remarkably still and silent, they are not particularly inviting places but they take the sting out storm surges and tsunamis, absorb CO2, provide livelihoods for small coastal communities and can adapt to rising sea levels as they simply hoist themselves up by growing higher roots. Ironically, these vitally-important ecosystems are the breeding places of wild shrimp and hundreds of other species - they are the nurseries of the sea.
It is difficult to obtain accurate figures on just what acreage of mangroves has been destroyed but when Juliet Gellatley and I wrote The Silent Ark nearly 20 years ago, it was about half of all those in the world and the situation has deteriorated dramatically since then. One source estimates that a half of the world’s mangroves has gone, up to two thirds in Ecuador and with only a quarter remaining in Honduras.
Let’s take one country – Indonesia, home to the largest prawn farm in the world, covering 16,000 hectares (nearly 40,000 acres) and home to 20,000 local people, most of whom run a couple of prawn ponds. Signed up on contracts they were given no time to read, they are entirely beholden to the Thai holding company for everything they use, from ‘seedling’ shrimps to feed, fertilisers and electricity and even their houses. It is a stranglehold that keeps them eternally in debt.
Elsewhere in the country, a new law known as HP-3 removes the right of local people to their coastal land - land on which they may have lived for possibly centuries – all because there are no ownership papers. It is being sold to the highest bidder on 60-year leases and in this endemically corrupt country, it is the capital-rich prawn industry that will take over. In fact the government has signified that it is prepared to sell off almost its entire 700,000 hectares of mangroves to industrial prawn farming, duplicating what it has done with its rain forests.
The Thai industry survives on endless supplies of essentially slave labour.
It’s not surprising that a Thai company is involved because they are the giants in prawn farming. The Thai industry survives on endless supplies of essentially slave labour, employing many of the 400,000 desperate refugees from Myanmar (Burma). Most are illegal immigrants, lured by traders with promises of well-paid employment, and paying to be smuggled into Thailand. They finish up in vast sheds peeling prawns for 16 hours a day, seven days a week, some still children. The few dollars they get is barely enough to pay off the interest to their smugglers. They daren’t complain for fear of being deported. To assuage Western guilt, the industry has set up an inspectorate to protect prawn workers and, of course, you know the outcome – not a single prosecution to date!
Again it is desperate Myanmar fugitives - abused, beaten and even killed for misdemeanours - who often crew the boats that catch the fish upon which prawns are fed. Their skippers sail in search of ‘trash fish,’ which they catch with bottom trawl nets of the smallest possible mesh. Every living creature of every conceivable species is scooped up, no matter what its size, and spilled on to the deck. Nothing is discarded except rocks and seaweed. Commercially valuable fish are iced down while the trash fish are dumped into the un-chilled hold. After days and sometimes weeks at sea in high heat, the hold becomes a stinking, putrefying mass of indeterminate creatures which eventually has to be unloaded at night for transportation to the feed processors so offensive is the stench. This is environmental vandalism of epic proportions.
Imagine the problems of our own intensive farming systems and you will see them replicated throughout the prawn industry – vast overcrowding, the prolific use of antibiotics, chemicals, fertilisers and drugs as up to three ‘crops’ of prawns may be grown in a single year. The resultant water containing faeces, filth and residues of all kinds may be simply emptied out into coastal waters.
As with all intensive farming, those with a financial interest will wave accords and agreements at you, produce undertakings and controls, just as they do here. They mostly don’t work in our sophisticated democracy so what chance to they stand in countries where wealth always trumps human and animal rights and environmental considerations. And before we get too cocky, it’s worth remembering the 23 Chinese illegal immigrant cockle gatherers who were drowned on Morecambe Bay sands in 2004, victims of our reprehensible agricultural gang-master system, which also thrives on people’s fear.
It’s easy to dismiss such little creatures as prawns as being unaware of any welfare insults but how wrong you would be. Even the industry talks at length about the stress prawns feel. Like most other animals, prawn ‘brood stock’ do not reproduce willingly in captivity but farmers have a remedy. God knows who discovered it but every breeding female is subjected to ablation – the snipping off of one or both eye stalks, rendering her blind. It triggers the development of ovaries and induces her to spawn.
In case you think that wild-caught, Norwegian cold-water prawns are the answer, think again. All prawn fishing is devastatingly destructive and these fishermen are little better than the trash fishermen of the Far East. The only difference is that our fishermen throw their trash back – almost all of it dead or dying. According to the UN, by-catch in the N E Atlantic amounts to 97 per cent of the total catch. Across the world, the average is 85 per cent and often includes over 200 different species.
The industry wrings its hands ad nauseam and talks about mitigating the loss but it’s all tosh. We all know what the only effective answer is, don’t we?
This article originally appeared in Viva!life magazine (Issue 55 Spring 2014). Viva!life is our member's magazine that is sent out three times a year. To read great articles like this all you have to do is join Viva! today! Find out more about this issue of Viva!life.