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The Price of Prawns. Why it's much more than $30 kg.

The Price of Prawns. Why it's much more than $30 kg.

The high seas and big bulk commercial fishing truly is one of the last vestiges of the wild west - except the internet of course. 

When you buy seafood at supermarkets, fish markets or even direct from a boat, they always look clean, shiny - and alone. The truth of course is that is generally a long way from what they looked like when they were caught. Your prawns or fish simply aren't caught one at a time except in your dreams, or maybe by that dude with a line and a bucket on the beach. The seafood you buy is most often caught in nets with a pile of other dead and dying fish and sea life, which is usually thrown overboard. 

I used to trawl for prawns in the Gulf of Carpentaria and Torres Straits - a job I landed after I ran out of money in Cairns the day before uni summer break ended. I was thinking of hitching a ride back to Brisbane and went to visit an old friend of my father's who owned a prawn trawler. He just happened to be going to sea the next day and needed a cook. (I was a vegetarian hippy and couldn't cook and I'd never been to sea, but in those days, all cooks were girls and most deckhands were blokes hiding from the law. For the privilege of being a girl, you got to be both a cook and a deckhand and get paid half as much as the blokes.) Two years later I had a Fishing Vessel Skipper's ticket instead of a Bachelor Science. 

By Catch

At the time, I had no concept of the fact that we were destroying habitats or dragging up an average 5:1 ratio of by-catch to prawns (or that smoking was bad for you). All that dead marine life was simply something that had to be sorted through and pushed off the boat so we could get to the prawns. And quickly. Tiger prawns are mostly caught at night so life is lived in 2 hour sleep rotations. These days, in regulated fishing, a lot more effort goes in to reducing by-catch with redesigned nets and fishing gear.

Commercial fishing practices might have improved, but not all vessels use by-catch mechanisms and others simply don't care. Our consumption of seafood and related over fishing is touted by many as a bigger threat to the oceans than is plastic pollution or acidification. 

Long line fishing and super trawlers have nets kilometres long that literally drag along the sea bed dredging up everything they move past, snagging thousands and literally tons of sea creatures that are literally tossed back into the ocean, dead or dying - after each catch. 


The same nets, ultimately known as ghost nets, often end up as ocean residents, floating forever or on the ocean floor, snaring and killing sea creatures that get caught in their almost invisible tentacles.

Over fishing

Over fishing oceans is widely reported and the recent IPBES Report on the state of the planet confirmed the extent to which our avaricious appetites are driving our own extinction. Greenpeace say that one in three fish populations has collapsed since 1950.

For many reasons we persist with the fantasy that our oceans remain abundant in the face of our seemingly endless assault on sea life, the treatment of them as plastics trash cans and their acidification as they absorb more CO2. 

The tide is literally coming in as the effects of all our hard work are starting to deepen. The scarcity of fish in places like Senegal, where the ocean food source is their main sustenance are alarmingly clear. In this example from Global Post Investigations, the fleet of Saint Louis, historically Senegal’s most important artisanal fishing hub, has experienced a massive drop in the quantity of fish it catches as this 2017 production graph shows.

The wild west

Many people don't realise that the high seas or international waters - 200 nautical miles from a coastline - are a kind of no man's land. And it's in this territory that illegal fishing ships put out lines of hooks that can be 50 - 100 kilometres long. These ships not only destroy massive tracts of the ocean, but one ship can literally catch more in one outing than a fleet of small boats can catch in a year. 

These ships are hard to catch, resulting in people like Paul Watson from Sea  Shepherd being quietly contracted by different governments around the world to literally chase them down. Billed as an eco pirate by some and criminal by others, Paul Watson and his crew engage in a dangerous high seas game of cat & mouse - and seem to do rather well at mouse catching. Whatever you think of Paul Watson, there seems no real alternative to catching and eliminating the illegal vessels in the territories they operate. The problem of course is that their systematic destruction of habitats affects us all.  

What can you do?

If you don't want to join Paul Watson, at the extreme end, stop eating fish. If you do eat fish - if it's fresh - check the source and don't waste it. (Both at sea and on land, we are appallingly bad at seafood waste. Much of what gets caught is simply never consumed.)  If it's tinned or frozen, read the label. 

Images: S McGowan - AMC2008, Marine Photobank | Chart by Aurelie Beatley, Global Post Investigations
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