By Jim Wickens
These days we pick up a packet of frozen prawns from the supermarket almost without thinking. They’re healthy, flavour-some and cheap enough to count as an affordable treat, perhaps on a skewer for a barbecue or daintily arranged for a dinner party starter.
If we give even a moment’s thought about where they come from we probably imagine a sun-burnished fisherman skilfully tossing his nets out into the tropical waters of the Indian Ocean or South China Sea before hauling in his valuable catch. Nothing, I’m afraid, could be further from the truth.
As an environmental journalist, I’ve visited Thailand, the world’s leading exporter of farmed king prawns, many times to investigate the prawn trade, and what I discovered is so horrifying I will never eat another king prawn again.
Every aspect of this trade is stomach churning: from the putrid factories that process the feed to the prawn farms that pollute the oceans.
Welcome to the rotting, stinking and very dangerous world of the prawn trade, a world where industrial fishing boats exploit illegal slave labour to harvest the so-called ‘trash fish’ on which the prawns are fed and leave devastating environmental damage in their wake.
I began my investigation aboard the trawlers that plunder the seas to provide the feed for the prawn farms along Thailand’s shoreline.
While on board, I discovered that trafficked labourers from Burma and Cambodia are forced to work 20 hours a day, seven days a week, on boats where they are often beaten, abused, even killed by unscrupulous skippers. These men suffer appalling treatment — some even dying on ship and having their bodies tossed casually overboard — just so we can taste king prawns in a lunchtime sandwich or Friday night curry.
The damage to our oceans is also devastating.
Watching a haul of trash fish being pulled over the side of a Thai fishing boat is a heart-breaking sight: a muddy mess of seaweed and rocks mixed with a vast variety of small or juvenile sea creatures: crabs, starfish, sponges and small fish that will not get the chance to grow any bigger.
It was a sight I had to get used to as I worked undercover on these boats. My technique for getting aboard was a dangerous one. More than once I had to throw myself into the sea so that a passing trash fish boat was obliged to ‘rescue’ me.
From my vantage point on deck, I saw how this grisly industry operates at first hand. Every few hours, a whistle would sound and a net would be hauled up from the depths, raised above the deck and, on a signal from the captain, the contents spilled out.
Panicked marine creatures including sea snakes, baby octopus, sea horses, puffer fish and pretty pink crabs would scurry across the deck, only to be crushed underfoot and shovelled up into a heap before being thrown into the hold.
These trawlermen employ one of the most environmentally damaging forms of commercial fishing to be found anywhere in the world: bottom trawling.
This practice, which sees the nets weighted down so that they sink to the sea bed, is enormously destructive. Entire tranches of marine life are effectively swept away and habitats and ecosystems that might have been there for centuries are destroyed.
Breeding populations of many marine species are being all but destroyed and with them the futures of local fishermen who, until the arrival of the bottom trawlers, had been harvesting sustainable catches of local fish for decades. But no longer.
Back on deck, the often enslaved crews, who are tricked into coming to Thailand by the false promise of generous wages, are woken by the deafening blare of an air horn mounted above their cramped sleeping quarters.
Exhausted, but too frightened to disobey an order, they stumble to the deck to sort through the latest trash fish catch. It’s only really the rocks and the weed that go over the side; everything else is shovelled into an already stinking hold.
Many of these boats do have ice-controlled holds, but they are reserved for commercially valuable catches. The trash fish go straight into a filthy compartment where, with boats often at sea for days at a time, they soon start to rot.
By the time they return to port, the stench from these holds is almost unimaginable and there are regular reports of crewmen fainting and even dying after they’ve been sent into the holds to help with unloading, only to be overcome by the toxic fumes.
These men are often at sea for months, even years at a time, thanks to the unscrupulous practice of transferring crew from a returning vessel loaded with fish, to an empty trawler setting out. In such harsh working conditions, where disobedience is often met with a beating from a metal pipe or even a bullet, suicides are common and murders not unknown.
One crewman I spoke to had been shot at four times and had seen at least one crewmate killed. These desperate men are dying unnoticed, far out at sea, hundreds of miles from their homes and family.Once the trawlers return to port, the commercially valuable fish are unloaded first and sold at the dockside market.
It is only later in the day, when the market has cleared and the port almost seems to have shut down, that the trash fish trucks arrive.
Time and again, I witnessed the boats’ stinking holds being unloaded and their rotting cargo shovelled into ten-tonne dumper trucks.
From here, it is a very smelly ride to an industrial processing plant, where the feed destined for prawn farms is produced. It is produced amid swarms of flies, temperatures that can approach 38C and a sweltering humidity of 100 per cent. The stench is foul.
Load upon load of putrid fish and decaying marine creatures is poured into fetid storage containers. Every now and then you spot the eye of a beautiful coral fish or the glint of a long-dead starfish as the noxious mess is crushed and passed through a series of ovens until the final product — fish flour — is obtained.
Transformed into pellets, this is then driven to the prawn farms that have all but destroyed Thailand’s mangrove forests.
If you’d driven down the coast of the Gulf of Thailand 20 or 30 years ago you’d have seen mile after mile of these flooded forests, an incredible breeding ground for fish and a natural barrier that protected Thai farmers and their land from tsunamis.
Today, however, most of these forests are gone. In their place is mile after mile of prawn ponds, their valuable contents protected by high fencing and security lighting.
In these ponds, prawns are farmed on an industrial scale to meet booming demand from consumers in North America and Europe. In Britain, we consume about 85,000 tonnes of prawns a year, two-thirds of which are warm-water prawns like those farmed in Thailand. The trade is worth £450 million in Britain alone.
Prawns need brackish, slightly salty water, which is why former mangrove forests that have been cleared of their trees and cut off by sluices from the sea are ideal.
But prawns also need feeding — a lot of feeding. Spend a day peering through one of those security fences and you’ll see men coming out every few hours to toss another bucket of ‘feed’ to the growing prawns.
I watched from the side of one prawn pond as they prepared to harvest the fattened prawns. The sluices were opened and the prawns caught in a filter as the water drained out.
They are beheaded and frozen in minutes but, in many cases, the filthy lagoon water, a grim cocktail of several months’ worth of excreta and food waste, is simply washed out into what’s left of the surrounding mangrove forests or straight out to sea.
Thailand does have marine conservation laws designed to protect both its coastal waters and specially designated marine conservation reserves. But these are poorly policed and routinely ignored by ruthless commercial fishing fleets whose only concern is short-term profit at any cost. Meanwhile, thousands of miles from this marine destruction, we unthinkingly bite into a delicious skewer of tiger prawns, perhaps coated with garlic butter.
But what are the alternatives to industrially produced prawns?
Some certification schemes for so-called ‘responsibly produced’ prawns do exist, and marginal improvements to farming practices are beginning to take place.
But in my research I have found that none of the certification schemes properly address the damage being done to local communities or the destruction to the marine environment caused by trash fishing.
King prawns can also be produced organically. Naturally, this makes them very expensive for supermarket customers. But even organic prawn farming usually requires the destruction of wild mangrove forest — even if trash fishing has been avoided.
As consumers, however, we can look elsewhere. There are cold-water prawns from the North Atlantic, which currently account for about one-third of all prawns eaten in this country.
Dublin Bay prawns from the Irish Sea — most of which are currently exported to France as langoustine — are another alternative. Neither, however, is currently available as cheaply or conveniently as Thailand’s tiger prawns. The only answer, I believe, is to stop eating warm-water king prawns altogether.
I, for one, don’t want slave labour and the destruction of the ocean mixed in with my prawn cocktail. Do you?
A version of this story appeared in the Daily Mail newspaper