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Thu May 26 10:50:58 SAST 2016

Say no to prawnography

Andrea Burgener | 16 March, 2016 00:10
Andrea Burgener. File photo
Image by: Supplied / Times Media Group

Why are we still eating prawns? Scoffing them willy bloody nilly, just as if there's no problem at all? It's because they're so bloody delicious, of course.

Yes, it's hard to contemplate a satisfying life without them, but the truth is that their journey from water to plate is full of such dreadfulness that it removes quite a bit of the deliciousness once you know the details. Prawn farming (farmed critters make up most of what we're eating) causes some of the worst environmental degradation on the planet. Prawn farms have destroyed over 38% of the world's essential mangrove swamps, and degrade the water for miles around them, killing off other marine life.

Among the array of substances introduced into the water during a shrimp farm's cycle, are superphosphate, diesel, chlorine, antibiotics and borax. Make no mistake, this stuff is in the prawns too. The dead area is abandoned and the farm moves up or down coast. ''Wild" caught prawns have just as hideous a story, but for different reasons. Prawns are bottom feeders and are caught using dragnets the size of soccer pitches, which scour the ocean bed, destroying reefs and general habitat.

Apart from this, the bycatch issue is nightmarish: for every kilo of prawns eaten, anything from 5kg to 20kg of bycatch (animals caught but thrown back dead or dying) is caught too. So while eating your next plate of prawns try to imagine 20 plates of dolphin, marine birds, sea-turtles and other fish right next to you. And that's a gentle picture. Sassi says that in some wild prawn trawling, there is up to 90% bycatch. How delicious is your plate of prawns now? There are some sustainable sources but there's no way to tell what you're eating if you're in a restaurant.

You can ask, but 99.9% of restaurants are clueless on the issue. If you're buying from a fishmonger or supermarket though, only ever buy prawns that are certified as sustainably harvested or farmed by the Marine Stewardship Council or another entirely independent certification group (the fishmonger or supermarket's own signs boasting sustainable, natural or organic prawns are utterly meaningless).

Is there anything we can still eat, for God's sake? Yes. The good news is that calamari and mussels are both pretty green. Calamari is caught using lights to bring it swarming to the surface, which means it can be targeted without much bycatch.

As for farmed mussels, they are fantastically eco-friendly. In her brilliant book Starfish, on sustainable seafood in South Africa, Daisy Jones reckons that mussels "might actually be the most sustainable form of seafood on earth".

And look what incredible mussels are leaping out of Saldhana Bay. Why bother with mealy prawns from Thailand when these silken beauties are on our doorstep?

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