The prawn and the whale in my food-choice dilemmas

“And then, you just add a little dash of lemon to the fried prawns, and it is unbelievable,” remarked my researcher colleague and friend, reminiscing about a delicacy she had had somewhere in the Amazon. We both sat on our boat parked at the Sea Mouth Beach of the Chilika Lake relishing a plate-full of large, juicy, crisp, red, pan-fried tiger prawns. We both loved the tiger prawns in only one sense: their taste. And the owner of the stall on the beach would give us 10 tiger prawns for just 70 Rupees! This was 2009: the tiger prawns were locally farmed in the lake, locally priced, and locally sold. We would both call it a little paradise where one could ‘exploit’ such decadent pleasures from somebody who did not know what the same tiger prawns would sell for,in the wider world beyond.

Although the prawns were locally farmed, there and then, we soon learned that prawn culture was damaging the ecology of Chilika, like a cancer growing into the lake’s body from its peripheries, slowly inwards. Fishermen would regularly complain about the rampant use of medicines, pesticides, and weedicides that were applied in the prawn culture farms, that were killing the juvenile fishes that would enter the estuary to grow bigger.Not only that, the sea mouth would almost be barricaded by prawn-fry capturing nets, which many relatively ‘traditional’ fishers would not like to see happening. Many in the estuary, including fisherwomen and their children, also fished for prawn fry using hand-held trammel nets, but the scale of exploitation of fry geared towards prawn farms was much bigger. The impacts of prawn culture were not limited to fish only.Prawn culture in Chilika was also big, illegal, business, run by business people from places far away from Chilika, or by local lords who wielded political power and sometimes armed threat over the smaller local fisher folk.The prawn farms and their violations were socially unjust and thus marginalized small-scale passive-gear fishermen. In a sense all this was the real cost of our cheap 70-rupee indulgence.

All along the Indian coastline, prawn farming has been degrading coastal waters, seashores, and lagoons. Additionally, the threat of prawn trawling offshore makes one feel furthermore guilty, and guiltier about eating prawns. For a few prawn, a relatively huge mass of ‘by-catch’ is taken from the sea. These are fish that are not the target of the trawling operation, and hence labelled, rather sadly, as “trash”, and of course, being trash, thrown away back into the ocean as a mass of dead fish.

I have since remembered straight-talking advice by my friend who studies Indian fisheries on responsible seafood consumption– “Do not eat prawn if you can”. Disgusted by the trail of death left behind by both cultured and trawled prawns, I totally stopped eating prawns a year ago. This lasted until when I was again confronted by the complicated choice posed by these tasty crustaceans in another time and place. We were recently in Oslo, Norway.My wife and I were meeting my sister and savouring the delights offered by the Scandinavian and European food that we have come to collectively love.My wife, generally a vegetarian, got introduced to a Konkani prawn curry two years ago, and hence was not unlikely to make exceptions to her vegetarianism.And one day we went to a seafood restaurant, a favourite of my sister, which put my head into a spin. It was Norway, after all, that sold trawlers wholesale to India in the1960s, thus laying one of the foundations for India’s “pink revolution”, subsequent prawn export boom, and the bycatch tragedies that followed. Were we going to eat prawns exported by some international flight all the way back to Oslo? I remembered that old “Made in India” cliché. But my sister certified that it was very likely that these were North Sea prawns caught by some ‘local’ fleet. Should we eat them? Finally to resolve the difficulty, we used the shroud of ignorance before tucking into prawn pasta worth 500 Norwegian Kroners, with I narrating the story of the 70-rupee snack of ten Chilika tiger prawns, with very mixed feelings.

As wildlife biologists, a complicated grid bound by reason, rationality, emotion, ethics, and hypocrisy, often governs our food choices. In our search for responsible food choices, heaven knows what might confront us. Many of my friends abandoned drinking tea but continued with coffee instead, depending on which crop fragmented forests more and affected elephants less. Some have raised a black flag against chocolates made by multinational companies growing oil palm in Indonesian rainforests – the home of Orangutans. Wild meat is a no-no, but an occasional wild boar my friends might not mind. It is perhaps fine to eat out invasive spotted deer in the Andaman Islands, but it is an abominable deed to do so on mainland India.I eat my sea fish today only on the coast, and my freshwater fish only along the Ganga, believing that I am doing the least harm possible. Would we all turn vegetarians one day, one wonders, but what the hell, meat tastes so good. Then we hear of lead-sucking cauliflowers and chromium-rich baby corns and pee-mixed panipuri, and our belief in meat eating gets one more lame justification. The botanist and writer Michael Pollan reminds his readers in the wonderful book, ‘The Omnivore’s Dilemma’, that food choices need to be based on where, how, and when one eats what, than what one eats only. There is no destination but only different paths, and these different paths are also difficult.

By now we have finished our Norwegian prawn lunch. After that we have visited many museums and it is nearing dinner by the time we are at the Oslo Station. With an impending foraging trip, I see a restaurant with blue letters declaring that it serves ‘whale meat’. Whale meat in Norway, one of the three or four countries in the world with Special Permits from the International Whaling Commission! The novelty of the prospect, the enigma of the taste, and the ethical cloud that surrounds the whole deal, again challenges the hell out of me.I have been to the meetings of the Whaling Commission and sat through meetings negotiating those special permits. I know which population model and metabolic equation the Norwegian scientists used to estimate their whale stocks and fat content, and I also know that their model is one of the most advanced. I know that the whale on the menu today was an animal ‘within the quota’ and therefore… perhaps… just fine to eat – I tell, no, I ask – myself. My sister wonders with her wide-open eyes whether that is a reasonable thought for somebody who studies dolphins. My wife tells me that it is a really terrible thought that I would want to eat one of the ocean’s singers, one of the ocean’s philosophers, by just holding on to the crutches of someso-called scientific rationality. And there I am, abandoning all thoughts of digging my teeth into whale blubber immediately. I cannot eat the whale, I just cannot.

The prawn and the whale are the small and big questions involved in what we should eat and what we should not eat. My food-choice dilemmas are partly resolved, but are they? Eating a prawn (no matter how locally or globally) might just be a more complex problem than the decision to eat a whale even with the knowledge of a scientifically approved, globally certified,special permit.

Bio: Nachiket Kelkar is an ecologist who studies river fisheries, dolphins, and related issues in the Gangetic plains. He is also a contributor to the Scientific Committee of the International Whaling Commission and a Member of the IUCN Cetacean Specialist Group.