Why I will leave the prawns out
My mother makes the best prawn curry recipe in the world. And like all good cooks, she refuses to tell me exactly how she makes it. I know it has green mango and freshly squeezed coconut milk in it. I also know that much of the magic comes from a specially prepared mixture called “bottle masala” which you will not find anywhere outside a traditional East Indian kitchen. The East Indians are a small coastal community that traditionally lived in small villages near Bombay and Bassein. Like many coastal communities, they developed a rich tradition of sea food in their diet and culture. Shrimp was caught in nets or traps or grown in the rice fields. And it was eaten not during large festivals, but on the occasional day when other fish were not available.
Things have changed. Shrimp today is caught using the most willfully destructive fishing techniques ever devised. Bottom trawlers scrape clean the silty environments where shrimp live. What they leave behind is a barren and scarred seascape that may take years to recover – if it recovers at all. Bottom trawling for shrimp is one of the most wasteful forms of fishing. Our studies show that for every 20 kilos of shrimp caught along the Indian coast, trawlers scoop up more than 400 kilos of marine life – most of it practically worthless. Some of it is converted into fishmeal to feed chickens. The rest is either discarded overboard or left to rot on the docks and beaches. Many of these worthless species are long-lived and were critical parts of the ecosystems they inhabited.
What about farmed shrimp then? Surely they are not as destructive? Well, yes, they do not result in as much loss of marine habitats but their impacts on coastal ecosystems and agricultural land is difficult to exaggerate. As shrimp mariculture becomes increasingly industrialised, land once used for coastal agriculture are now being converted to shrimp farms, destroying these lands forever. To increase production and to deal with disease, these shrimp are fed with a host of chemicals and antibiotics. Eating farmed shrimp means consuming these chemicals as well – certainly not part of my mum’s prawn curry recipe.
I wish it were different. I wish I could say that there was a good season to eat shrimp or that there was some kind of ‘ecological’ alternative available. There isn’t. I’ll be honest. I love shrimp. But I cannot find an ecologically honest way to eat it. And so, the next time I ask my mum to make me her extraordinary recipe, I’ll ask her to leave the prawns out – or replace it with some other fish. It won’t be the same of course. But it won’t taste of destroyed ecosystems, bycatch, antibiotics or guilt.
Rohan Arthur is a senior scientist and co-founder trustee at the Nature Conservation Foundation, India. He also directs their Oceans and Coasts program.