I’m a prawn junkie. I love those little schoolies salt and spice rubbed and deep-fried to crispy perfection. Or king prawns skewered lengthwise, barbecued in their full body armour, and peeled to reveal plump, pink, almost steamed, flesh. Banana prawns dressed in Panko breadcrumbs, deep-fried and dipped in a chilli-kicked mango mayonnaise make me weak at the knees. I save prawn shells to make stock for tom yam goong (sour & spicy prawn soup) – my favourite Thai dish. But a generous handful of prawns cooked in a thick, rich, Indian butter curry is by far my guiltiest pleasure. Ah, yes, I love a good prawn.
So my sustainable seafood push last year left me in a bit of a quandary. After sorting through the quagmire of misleading and contradictory information on sustainable sources, I eventually figured out the fish bit. I decided i would mostly eat little fish, those lower down the food chain that are fast growing and breeding and less likely to be over-fished. But what about prawns?
The Australian Marine Conservation Society tells consumers to “think twice” about eating wild caught banana, tiger and king prawns and aquaculture species. On its website, the GoodFishBadFish team relays the ACMS recommendation that haul caught school and bay prawns from NSW are a good choice, but definitely say no to imported prawns. In my confusion i didn’t eat prawns for a while. But once a prawn junkie, always a prawn junkie and they’ve gradually found their way back onto the weekly menu.
Then I heard about Spencer Gulf king prawns, which was the world’s first king prawn fishery to receive certification for sustainability from the not-for-profit Marine Stewardship Council (MSC) last June. I thought all my ‘throw a shrimp on the barbie’ Christmases had come at once.
Unfortunately, it’s almost impossible to find MSC-labelled prawns. There’s good reason for that. For fishmongers and retailers to carry MSC-labelled products they must obtain chain of custody certification, which ensures traceability of the product. This is time consuming and costly to do. So far no fishmongers have chain of custody certification in Australia. And there are no retailers currently selling MSC-certified prawns.
This doesn’t mean they can’t stock the produce; they just can’t fly the MSC blue eco-label with its white tick of approval. So if consumers – like me – are looking for the label, or asking specifically for MSC-certified prawns, they’re unlikely to find them.
The Spencer Gulf king prawn team told me that two fishmongers at the Sydney Fish Market stocked their prawns. So off I went one lunchtime to buy some. But when I naively asked for MSC-certified prawns the staff looked at me as if I was stupid. They didn’t have a clue what I was talking about. If I’d just asked for South Australian king prawns, and they had been in stock (as it happens they weren’t in stock in February, as the last catch was in December) they probably could have assisted me. So that’s what I got for trying to be sustainable and responsible – a blank stare. I had simply been too specific. But I didn’t know any better, and I suspect many consumers would be in the same boat.
Anthony Mercer, the business manager at De Costi Seafoods says, the company usually stocks Spencer Gulf prawns when they’re available. But the company hasn’t got chain of custody certification, so they can’t be sold as MSC-certified prawns. He says getting certification is not overly expensive and the company may do so in future. But a percentage of the prawn sales will go back to the MSC.
“It becomes a relatively expensive exercise in an industry where there isn’t particularly big margins,” Mercer says. “That will be passed down the line. The public, at the end of the day, will pay more for that product.”
I suggest that many consumers are prepared to pay more for better quality produce. But Mercer says while the quality of Spencer Gulf prawns is “very good”, it’s easy to confuse an eco-label with a better quality product, which isn’t always the case.
What worries Mercer is that those fisheries that don’t obtain certification will be labelled “unsustainable by default”. He believes that as long as fish stocks are monitored and quotas are adjusted in accordance to that, it’s a sustainable source.
“I want fish there for infinitum,” he says. “My whole livelihood depends upon it.”
I eventually found MSC-certified prawns at Fish & Co, a sustainable seafood café in Annandale, Sydney that has a wet fish sales service. I cooked the green prawns alongside some others bought from the supermarket. Both batches were peeled, marinated in olive oil, lemon zest, thinly sliced red chilli and a sprinkling of fresh thyme. Then I barbecued them. The Spencer Gulf prawns stuck stubbornly to the barbecue while the supermarket prawns didn’t.
But on tasting the prawns it was easy to understand why. The Spencer Gulf prawns were like butter – meltingly soft. The supermarket prawns were much firmer. When they were eaten alongside the Spencer Gulf prawns the supermarket catch were most certainly tougher. The marinade masked any difference in the flavour of the flesh.
I thought the difference in texture could be due to where the prawns were placed, and for how long, on the barbecue. They could have been cooked over unequal heat, and if the supermarket prawns were turned over last, they may have been cooked for a little longer, which would have impacted the texture. I decided to give them another chance.
The next day, I cooked the remainder of both batches of prawns with spaghetti al cartoccio (spaghetti cooked in a bag). Spaghetti, cooked until not quite al dente, is mixed with tomato sauce, white wine, herbs, anchovies, and capers. It is placed in a foil pouch with some prawns laid on top and cooked in the oven. The prawns steam in the pouch and absorb subtle aromas. Again the Spencer Gulf prawns trumped the supermarket variety with their glorious soft texture. Again, I detected little difference in flavour.
I asked Simon Clark, the executive director of the Spencer Gulf and West Coast Prawn Fisherman’s Association, why those prawns are possibly texturally superior.
Clark says the fishing boats are set up “like mini factories”. The prawns are graded and packed within half an hour of capture and snap – or blast – frozen at -40°C. Blast freezing maintains the cell structure of the prawn so they don’t expand then collapse when defrosted.
“If you freeze them slowly it expands them and breaks the cell structure, which can change the texture,” he says.
He acknowledges that MSC-labelled prawns haven’t made it through to retail shelves yet, even though it’s approaching a year since the fishery was certified.
“For a retailer to display certification, that blue tick of approval, they need to go through a chain of custody audit and pay a royalty and licence fee and … I don’t think the blue label is going to bring [retailers] that small premium right now,” Clark says. “I think it’s something that’s going to grow.”
He hopes the MSC will take on board some of that marketing responsibility. In the meantime:
“we’re trying to promote Spencer Gulf king prawns as a certified prawn … more than maybe just the MSC [logo] itself.”
He also sees certification as an investment in the future. However, obtaining certification hasn’t changed the fishery significantly. Clark says it was already a sustainable operation, the MSC just recognised those good practices.
As Mercer puts it:
“Nothing’s changed in that fishery from last year’s catch to this year’s catch, but you pay more for it.”
So for giving a fishery a tick of approval for something it is potentially already doing, the MSC receives an annual fee (depending on the size of the business) and a royalty fee of 0.5 per cent on the sale of certified products. In addition, third party certifiers charge fisheries – and those in the supply chain – for the relevant certification.
The manager of MSC Australia and New Zealand, Patrick Caleo, says while there are currently no fishmongers with chain of custody certification in Australia, the organisation has done a lot of work with the supply chain recently to get wholesalers and distributors certified, and is now focusing its efforts on the restaurant sectors and wet fish counters.
“It won’t be long before certified prawns are available widely around Australia,” he says.
Three other Australian fisheries that have met the MSC standard: the West Australian rock lobster fishery, the South Australian Lakes and Coorong fishery, and the Heard and McDonald Island mackerel icefish fishery.
Another three Australian fisheries are currently in MSC assessment, including Australia’s largest prawn fishery – the Northern prawn fishery.
“Nearly every prawn sold in the country is going to be MSC-accredited,” Mercer says.
When MSC-labelled prawns finally hit retail shelves, they may give some consumers greater piece of mind. But it’s likely to be at a price.
Note: Photographs supplied by the Spencer Gulf and West Coast Prawn Fisherman’s Association.