Wednesday, June 8, 2011

Spot Prawns: A Sustainable Local Delicacy

A post from Quest volunteer, Talia, on her introduction to BC spot prawns.

This week, I had my first spot prawn experience. In the past few years, I had stopped eating shrimp as I had learned that the international shrimping industry was wreaking havoc on the environment. Spot prawns are native to BC waters and are wild (rather than farmed), sustainable, and less vulnerable to fishing pressures than other types of seafood. Sixty percent of the prawns we consume in North America are pond-raised in Asia and Latin America by an industry that is clear-cutting mangrove forests and causing poverty for coastal dwellers.

In the early 1980's coastal farmers in countries such as Thailand (now the world's largest producer of pond raised shrimp) learned of the profit to be made in the shrimping industry. Rice farmers began to convert their coastal farm properties into shrimp ponds, clearing the mangrove forests which once surrounded these lands. Mangroves are rich ecosystems which support many species of fish. It is estimated that up to 90% of commercial seafood species which live in tropical waters spend some part of their lives in the mangroves. Mangroves have also been credited with protecting against coastline erosion and flooding. Since the 1980's, is has been estimated that 35% of the world's mangrove forests have been lost. Up to a third of this loss is attributed to the shrimping industry.

In addition to its impact on mangrove forests, the shrimping industry has other harmful environmental consequences. The waste water from farmed shrimp ponds contains large amounts of chemical fertilizers, pesticides, and antibiotics which have negative effects when dumped into the environment. Typical shrimp farms can only be used for a few years. Once abandoned, the farm lands can no longer be used due to high levels of acid and toxic chemicals in the soil. One study suggested that it could take up to 30 years to rehabilitate abandoned shrimp farm lands from the environmental devastation they have caused. Many have suggested that mangrove ecosystems would assist in the rehabilitation of these lands. However, many of these forests have also been destroyed.

While the international shrimping industry proved lucrative for thousands of farmers, the short life span of shrimp ponds seriously impacted small-scale coastal farmers who could not afford to obtain more land once what they had was rendered unusable. Thailand's east coast is now baron land left with nothing but toxic ponds and contaminated water.

The shrimping industry in North America has its own set of problems, even when it comes to catching wild shrimp. The trawler method used to catch shrimp in the wild is estimated to result in the death of one to 20 pounds of fish for every pound of shrimp caught. In addition, trawlers have been linked to the death of thousands of sea turtles a year. New regulations have led to changes in trawling methods. These changes have reduced the number of sea turtles and other large sea creatures caught by the trawls, however, smaller fish continue to be negatively impacted by these shrimping methods.

I have recently learned, however, that not only are spot prawns local to the Vancouver area, but they are fast-growing, short lived, and have a high reproductive capacity, making them less vulnerable to fishing pressures. Spot prawn fisherman use baited nets so the amount of other species caught or affected is relatively low. A number of regulations have also been put in place to ensure the health and sustainability of the spot prawn population. These include limits on licenses, single haul per day limitations, and regulations to ensure that other species are not negatively affected in spot prawn traps.

Spot prawn season begins in May and only lasts for approximately 80 days. For more information on local and sustainable spot prawns as well as other seafood, visit the SeaChoice website at http://www.seachoice.org/page/bcspotprawns. SeaChoice is a watchdog organization concerned with the health and sustainability of our fisheries and oceans.

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