The true price of prawns

LONDON, UK, December 19, 2003 (ENS): Sustainable forestry and fisheries have been encouraged by eco-labeling and certification schemes over the past decade. Now a British environmental organization and a celebrity chef are trying to do the same for the prawn, or shrimp, industry.

Grilled, boiled, peeled, or battered, shrimp are popular during the holiday season, but the Environmental Justice Foundation and TV chef Ken Hom are demanding an end to widespread human rights and environmental abuses associated with the worldwide multi-billion dollar industry.

Know your prawns

The EJF guide lists questions that consumers can ask at the supermarket or restaurant to encourage sustainable and ethical prawn production.

Which countries are prawns sourced from, and are these prawns fished or farmed?

Do the prawns sold come from well-managed sources that are not linked to environmental degradation or social problems?

Does the supplier have codes of conduct for the management of prawn farms and fisheries, and can they provide information on who monitors the implementation of these standards?

If the prawns are fished, how do they ensure that the accidental capture of other marine life is reduced or eradicated?

Do they sell organically farmed prawns? Organic production has fewer environmental impacts, but social issues are only partially addressed, the EFJ says.

Do they sell prawns that are fairly traded, helping coastal communities to benefit from the trade in this luxury food?

They say consumer awareness of the consequences of their shrimp, or prawn purchases can make the difference between environmental degradation and sustainable production, between murder and thriving communities.

“People have been murdered in 11 countries in conflict linked to prawn farming," said Hom, who has recorded a short video message highlighting these abuses. "The environment has been degraded and human rights have been abused to bring us this luxury food product.”

Prawn farming has been associated with hazardous forms of child labor, illegal land seizures, large scale destruction of mangrove forests, pollution of water and agricultural land, violence and intimidation.

Prawn fisheries are responsible for one-third of the world’s discarded catch, while producing just two percent of global seafood, the celebrity chef says.

The Environmental Justice Foundation (EJF) today published a Consumer Guide to Prawns, highlighting these abuses and showing consumers how to avoid promoting them with their purchases.

“Consumers have a right to know what impacts their purchasing decisions have," said the EJF's Dr. Mike Shanahan.

Worldwide, prawn farming is worth US$6.9 billion at the farm gate and US$50-60 billion at the point of retail, the EJF's research shows.

The European Union is the largest consumer of prawns, eating 24 percent of world production, followed by the United States at 21.9 percent.

Two years of research and field investigations by the Environmental Justice Foundation have documented land seizures and the displacement of tens of thousands of people by the prawn industry seeking land for farming operations.

The foundation found evidence of the pollution of agricultural land and drinking water supplies with chemicals and salt, violence and intimidation of local people, as well as official corruption and profiteering.

Prawns are farmed in about 50 countries, with 99 percent of production coming from developing countries. The leading 10 producers in 2000 were Bangladesh, Brazil, China, Ecuador, India, Indonesia, Mexico, the Philippines, Thailand, and Vietnam.

Murders directly linked to the industry have occurred in 11 countries - all of the top 10 producing countries except China, plus Guatemala and Honduras, the EJF has documented.

Environmental Justice Foundation Director Steve Trent said, “Whilst some retailers and importers in the UK have shown genuine willingness to address negative impacts of prawn production, others have expressed no concern whatsoever, even though the human rights and environmental abuses associated with this industry are widespread and serious.

"People are becoming poorer and hungrier as a direct consequence of Western demand for prawns,” said Trent.

“With sales of US$50-60 billion, prawn farming is big business," said Trent, "but the true cost is paid by the poor and vulnerable in developing world countries where prawns are farmed, while prawn trawling is depleting fish stocks, damaging marine environments and wiping out endangered wildlife."

By land or by sea, shrimp production and harvesting result in environmental problems.

On land, large areas of coastal mangrove forest are cleared for shrimp farm construction. These mangroves are important habitats for many species of fish and shellfish, and their loss leaves coastal communities with reduced food security and potential for income generation.

On the sea, prawn trawling in the tropics is wasteful and can have devastating ecological impacts, the Environmental Justice Foundation says. For every kilogram (2.2 pounds) of prawns landed, up to 20 kilos of other species are also caught but thrown overboard, dead or dying.

"150,000 marine turtles are killed by prawn trawlers every year,” says chef Hom.

But responsible prawn aquaculture can take place with minimal environmental damage. The Australian Prawn Farmer's Association says the Australian industry was the first prawn farming sector in the world to develop an Environmental Code of Practice.

In Australia, marine plants are protected under state law. This includes all species of mangrove, seagrass and seaweed. Authorities only allow removal with appropriate mitigation. In the process of making that decision, authorities are required by law to consult with all interested members of the community - this includes conservation groups, scientists, recreational and commercial fishing interests.

Caring consumers could make a difference by demanding that their prawns, or shrimp, the terms are used interchangeably, come from sustainable operations, but currently there is no adequate labeling system for consumers to identify prawns produced in a sustainable manner.

Shrimp consumption in the UK rises during the Christmas party season, so the EJF has chosen this time to publish its guide to help consumers make wise choices.

Tren said, “Supermarkets must insist, ensure and show consumers that none of the prawns they have for sale are causing environmental degradation or leading to human rights abuses."

Dr. Shanahan says, “We are asking consumers to think about the true price of the prawns on their plate, and to take them off the menu if they cannot be certain that their production has not entailed ecological impacts or human rights abuses.”

The EJF consumer guide and Ken Hom's video messare are available online at:

Copyright Environment News Service (ENS) 2003. All Rights Reserved.

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