I’m not sure if you’re aware but prawns – or shrimp – are an ecological and ethical disaster waiting for a barbie to be thrown atop.

Image via One Bite More
Image via One Bite More

I wasn’t…until recently. My uncle Pete was a trawler. We ate them every Christmas. And in fried rice when Mum made it for one of my brother’s birthdays most years. But I, like many of us, care more about this kind of thing these days. I care, and I want to act right. So prawns…

As with all my sustainable eating posts, I don’t suggest banning foods. I advise making better/best choices. And using up leftovers and the whole animal/vegetable/mineral. Wastage is the real ethical/eco crime, to my mind. In time for Christmas I decided to research this bottom dweller issue and share what I found, so you too can get real with shrimp!

Why are prawns a problem?

The bycatch is shocking:  I’ve heard anecdotally that

for every prawn caught, 27 other species are caught in the bycatch and tossed away.

World Wildlife Fund (WWF) best describes this issue here, claiming:

Tropical shrimp trawling (TST) has one of the largest bycatch rates of all fishing techniques and often damages the ocean´s seafloor.”

Bottom trawling is shocking: it destroys coral and has a detrimental affect on the seafloor. Seafloors are vital to the health of coral forests, seagrass beds, kelp forests and deep sea thermal vents.

Many of the prawns we buy are imported. About 70 per cent of the seafood Australians consume is from OS. Which is an issue because many countries don’t fish their prawns sustainably. Tropical shrimp farms in Asia  – where much of our prawns come from – destroy coastal mangroves.

So, what to look for?

As I say, I’m not about banning prawns. It’s about getting smart and mindful. There are tricks.

1. Look for Marine Stewardship Council– certified. Ask your monger if the prawns they’re selling are as such. MSC is the biggest fishery standard (with more than 200,000 fish covered in over 15 countries) and therefore this first port of call is probably your safest bet, wherever you are in the world. MSC-certified prawns are trawled on sandy or muddy ocean floors and cause minimal impact to the habitat and ecosystem. But, somewhat contentiously, not all their recommended prawns are low-bycatch.

The Aquaculture Stewardship Council (ASC) is also setting up certification with farms such as Tassal Operations’ Macquarie Harbour Farm becoming the first in Australia to receive certification. As farms start to become certified by them you’ll be able to look out for their ecolabel too.

2. Choose Northern Prawn Fishery (NPF) prawns, which include banana, tiger and endeavour. They’re found in the big retailers and mongers as NPF is the largest prawn fishery in Australia. But note they’re one of the fisheries with high bycatch.

3. Choose Australian. Pam from the Australian Marine Conservation Society (AMCS) suggests you go for “amber-listed” Australian-caught prawns. Check out their “red”, “amber” and “green” sustainable seafood guide for all fish.

4. Choose estuary or river prawns, says Nathaniel from Greenpeace. You should choose local estuary or river prawns (school prawns) that aren’t trawled – Clarence River Prawns are a good choice.

5. If you’re going for farmed prawns… “choose a farm that uses land-based ponds with closed-loop technology (so there are no pollutants) put out into the water”, says Greenpeace’s Nathaniel. Charlotte from MSC adds that you should opt for Australian or New Zealand farmed seafood as they have excellent management practices in place.

6. In restaurants choose Spencer Gulf King Prawns. They’re another MSC recommendation.

7. Avoid prawns imported from South East Asia. Most are raised in unsustainable farms on reclaimed mangrove forest, are polluted with chemicals and effluent, and fed on many kilos of wild-caught trash fish (that’s the leftovers from destructive bottom trawling).

And where to buy them?

* For a full list of certified suppliers and where to find MSC-certified seafood in Australia go here.

* In Sydney Joto Fresh supply great sustainable prawns. They work to BAP, UNFAO and MSC certification. Check out their CleanFish Australia retail program.

* Elsewhere, MSC also has an app that helps you find good shrimp internationally.

The lovely Charlotte from MSC also shared these ideas with us:

* If you’re in Sydney check out Taronga Zoo The View Café for a delicious sustainable prawn lunch.

* Or for dinner you can’t go past Fish & Co in Annandale. Executive Chef Tom Kime has travelled the world researching sustainable seafood and makes a mean Vietnamese prawn cake.

* In Brisbane, try Swamp Dog. Although not yet certified, this fish and chip store uses a lot of MSC-certified sustainable seafood and their Northern Prawn Fishery popcorn prawns are to die for.

* While in Melbourne, Neil Perry’s Rock Pool has Chain of Custody certification and serves Spencer Gulf King Prawns.

* In Adelaide, visit the Adelaide Showground Farmers Market where fishermen from the community-based Lakes and Coorong fishery sell their certified sustainable seafood.

* In WA, relax with some live music and enjoy certified sustainable and Chain of Custody-certified prawns at Clancy’s Fish Pubs.

Are supermarket prawns OK?

Well, I’m glad you asked. Turns out Aldi is the best supermarket to get your prawns. They have a buying policy for all seafood products – fresh, frozen, canned, wild caught and farmed. The policy is already in place (unlike the other supermarkets) and is very comprehensive, with guidelines covering fish range, traceability, and labelling.

Woolworths and Coles promises it’s seafood will all be sustainably sourced by 2015, however currently only 57% of fish sold at seafood counters has been assessed by sustainability criteria, in alliance with the Marine Stewardship Council.

More work needs to be done in this area. The good news is the supermarkets do seem to be responding to consumer pressure. The best pressure comes when we vote with our dollars!

Do you have any extra questions? I’ll get the various experts I consulted to wade in and answer if so. Shoot!

Have your say, leave a comment.

  • I only ever purchase Australian wild-caught prawns, usually from Coles…good to know these prawns are the NPF prawns, and an ok choice!

    • Charlotte

      Hi Becs, Charlotte here from Marine Stewardship Council. NPF is the largest prawn fishery in Australia so chances are if you’re buying wild-caught Australia prawns at Coles, Woolies or ALDI those prawns are from that sustainable fishery, and not to mention ridiculously delicious 🙂

  • Niki

    This is excellent, my parents bought our prawns from ALDI last year and at the time I felt they were being a bit cheap – but so good to know it’s not the worst choice when it comes to sustainability. go ALDI.

  • Pikelet

    Fantastic post Sarah! I’m a marine biologist and it’s shocking how many people turn a blind eye to the sustainable seafood issue, despite making better choices in other areas. It’s great to see you tackle this and help inform all your followers. I can vouch for the tastiness of Spencer Gulf prawns too 😀

  • Petra

    Thanks for raising this issue Sarah – you really do ‘cover all bases’. I was wondering though about the preservative added to most prawns – usually 223 – known to be a nasty and one I’d like to avoid. I sadly couldn’t find any Australian, wild-caught prawns (even frozen), without preservatives in my local Woolies. Any suggestions?

    • hmmmm, to be honest, no. Perhaps one of the experts will wade in and answer!?

    • Prawn Farmer Cait

      Hi Petra, I don’t know much about wild-caught prawns in woolworths but I grow farmed prawns for them and the only preservatives we use are salt, kakadu plum extract which is basically just vitamin c and lactic acid which is naturally occurs in muscle tissue. You would be hard pressed buying prawns without preservatives and I would not recommend it, their flesh is very delicate and will break down with natural enzyme activity rapidly. Preservatives maintain the beautiful texture and taste we love in prawns and prevent food poisoning. I understand many other food products contain unnecessary and nasty preservatives but it is necessary for seafood products and you will find there are naturally sourced preservatives in use.

  • Princess Elizabeth Sargent

    One word … Fukushima … no more prawns for us.

  • Sasha

    I’m glad to have read this. As a consumer I want to be informed about the full effect of my buying choices not just to create a benchmark for quality but also raise a required standard in environmental sustainability. I’ve emailed De Costi where I buy my seafood and am interested to read their response.

    P.S. All this tasty prawn talk has made me put them on my grocery list today

  • Michelle

    Here on the Gold Coast we have a terrific local prawn farming family. Truloffs at Gilberton. The prawns are fantastic and the prices never go up just because it is Christmas.

  • Rachael Allanah

    Thank you Sarah, as always your info is so helpful and exactly the kind of thing that I want to know about.

  • Kate

    Thanks for this post Sarah. Really happy to hear that the Aldi prawns I bought recently are ok, now it’s just a matter of making sure I ask the right questions from other suppliers.

  • Ronaldo

    Another reason to shop at ALDI!!

  • Jo (down to earth mother)

    We’re going with Crystal Bay prawns, bought from a small business owner local to my area. CB Prawns are farmed in tropical Queensland but have strict mangrove-protection practices in place. It looks like their ponds are far enough inland to not impact the mangroves. What interests me is that, in their sustainability statement, CB prawns say their feed is certified GMO-free. Do farmed prawns eat a vegetable diet? Is this yet another thing to worry about?

    • Richard Allen

      Crystal Bay prawns are the best!! I have done loads of research on Seafarms Group and they appear to get the whole sustainability process just right. Great farming techniques with no bycatch.

  • melissa

    I just bought ALDI frozen prawns and says they’re from Malaysia, surely you’re not saying these are good? Thinking of taking them back because I don’t ever buy Asian seafood. So what good Aldi prawns are you talking about they only sell ones from Asia?

  • Em

    The most sustainable way to buy prawns is to not buy prawns. In your effort to support “sustainability”, it might be a good idea to put the health of the planet before your own personal desires to consume a particular food.

  • Prawn Farmer Cait

    In regards to Woolworths not committing to sustainable seafood this is not true. By 2017 all farmed tiger prawns sold through Woolworths will be grown using 100% sustainable practices

  • Prawn Farmer Cait

    If you are unsure about the sustainability of any seafood the Australian Marine Conservation Society had developed a free app called ‘sustainable seafood guide’ – it’s an excellent tool to pull out if you’re in the supermarket or at the fish mongerers