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.
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.
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.
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.
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.
Prawns 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.
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.
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?
By Jim Wickens