Seafood is to summer what pot roasts are to winter. Shellfish has even become synonymous with Australian culture, the most prominent of all being the classic prawn. Whether you love one on the barbecue, or plan to bring back the '80s prawn cocktail, what many aficionados might not know is that Australia is now a world-leader in sustainable prawn fishing.
While many Australian fisheries are sustainable, for it to be official, a company needs the stamp of approval from the Marine Stewardship Council (MSC). The international, non-for-profit organisation operates a certification and eco-label program based on a scientifically robust standard for assessing whether wild capture fisheries are ecologically sustainable and well managed. The most recent Australian fishery to be awarded MSC certification was the South Australian Spencer Gulf King Prawns.
Commercial shrimp fishing in South Australia’s Spencer Gulf began in 1967, with fishermen spending 280 nights at sea each year. Many of today’s fleet are second generation fishermen, but with modern technology and science on their side, their fishing season lasts 50 nights, producing approximately 2,000 tonnes of wild caught king prawns a year.
In 2011, the Spencer Gulf King Prawn Fishery sailed into the history books with a series of firsts in sustainability. The fishery is not only the first prawn fishery in the Asia Pacific, but the first king prawn fishery in the world to receive MSC certification. The assessment process is rigorous and lengthy, taking the South Australian fishery 12 months to complete. It is also voluntary, as fisheries elect to go through the certification process.
One of the key factors for this South Australian fishery was their “real time management” system. Their 39-boat fleet is required to report to a Committee at Sea when they start hitting prawns which are below an acceptable size. The Committee then shuts down those areas from all fishing, allowing prawns to spawn. The fleet also do a survey prior to each fishing trip, so they know exactly where the Spencer Gulf King Prawns will be at any given time. This is the only such system used for prawn fishery in Australia.
By-catch is another major concern, caused when other species of seafood such as crabs, stingrays and calamari are caught up amongst the prawns. The Spencer Gulf fishermen address this challenge with an on-board sorting process. Once nets are lifted, the prawns are dropped into large metal trays covered with grills; these grills allow the prawns to fall through, but larger species are able to be returned to nature.
Pro-actively reducing by-catch is a major allure for leading Australian chef Neil Perry, who has been involved with the fishery for over five years. “From their control of by-catch, to the way they treat their seafood, they really are setting the benchmark in prawn fishing” says Perry. The end result bares a “beautifully sweet, nutty flavour with crunch and texture”, likely to be seen on the menu at any of Perry’s seven restaurants across Australia.
The fishery was also acknowledged in 2009 by the Food and Agriculture Organisation of the United Nations, which deemed the Spencer Gulf fishery as one of the best managed prawn fisheries in the world. The UN organisation praised the fishery as a global model of fair, flexible and accountable management.
While the Spencer Gulf King Prawn fishery is now officially sustainable, it is trickier to measure Australia’s overall sustainability. It depends on which school of science you subscribe to when comparing facts. According to the United Nations’ Code of Conduct for Responsible Fisheries, Australia ranks 4th in the world. However, another research team assessing the relative sustainability of the top seafood producing nations, ranked Australia 31 out of 53 nations. Part of the discrepancy is caused by how researchers define sustainability. While some deem a fishery sustainable based on fishery stock levels, others may class the same fishery unsustainable due to a variety of knock-on effects.
Perry isn’t guided by the statistics, he believes “As a chef, we are a conduit between suppliers and the public; we have the opportunity to guide people in the right direction. But, as a human being, it’s our responsibility to act sustainably.”