Thai shrimp farming industry under fire

Thailand’s multi-billion dollar shrimp industry has been fiercely criticised in an article published by one of the world’s most popular news websites.

  • Published: 18/03/2013 at 11:22 AM
  • Newspaper section: topstories

Shrimp farmers sort out their produce in Prachuap Khiri Khan's Sam Roi Yod district in this file photo from 2010. Photo by Chaiwat Sardyaem.

Writing for Britain's MailOnline – which registered a record 126,753,431 global monthly unique browsers in January – journalist Jim Wickens said he would “never eat a king prawn again” after observing Thailand’s shrimp trade.

Thailand produced approximately 540,000 tonnes of shrimp in 2012 and is the world’s biggest exporter, with annual sales worth between 3- and 4-billion US dollars (88-118bn baht). 

The report, published on Saturday, claims that Thailand’s prawn industry is manned by slave labour and is destroying marine life and the environment.

Wickens claims to have gone undercover to witness the faults of Thailand’s shrimp industry, going to unusual lengths to gain access to fishing trawlers.

“My technique for getting aboard was a dangerous one,” he wrote. 

“More than once I had to throw myself into the sea so that a passing trash fish boat was obliged to ‘rescue’ me."

Wickens wrote that he saw the devastation that deep-sea fishing trawlers cause to marine life as they scoop up everything in their path in the hunt for valuable prawns.

“From my vantage point on deck, I saw how this grisly industry operates at first hand. Every few hours, a whistle would sound and a net would be hauled up from the depths, raised above the deck and, on a signal from the captain, the contents spilled out,” he wrote.

“Panicked marine creatures including sea snakes, baby octopus, sea horses, puffer fish and pretty pink crabs would scurry across the deck, only to be crushed underfoot and shovelled up into a heap before being thrown into the hold.”

Wickens claims that human trafficking is a problem in the Thai shrimp fishing industry, with “often enslaved crews” from neighbouring countries, “who are tricked into coming to Thailand by the false promise of generous wages,” working on boats under terrible conditions.

“While on board, I discovered that trafficked labourers from Burma and Cambodia are forced to work 20 hours a day, seven days a week, on boats where they are often beaten, abused, even killed by unscrupulous skippers,” Wickens wrote.

“These men suffer appalling treatment — some even dying on ship and having their bodies tossed casually overboard — just so we can taste king prawns in a lunchtime sandwich or Friday night curry.

“One crewman I spoke to had been shot at four times and had seen at least one crewmate killed. These desperate men are dying unnoticed, far out at sea, hundreds of miles from their homes and family.” 

Wickens also wrote of his concern about the deforestation of mangroves to make way for industrial size prawn farms.

Thailand’s mangrove forests support a wide and diverse ecosystem including algae, barnacles, oysters, sponges, bryozoans, shrimps, mud lobsters, mangrove crabs and macaque monkeys. 

Mangrove forests are extremely important to the ecosystem and can prevent coastal erosion, maintain water quality and clarity through retention and removal of nutrients and pollutants, filtering these materials from water before they reach seaward coral reef and seagrass habitats.

Wickens also claims that they are a shield against tsunamis.

“If you’d driven down the coast of the Gulf of Thailand 20 or 30 years ago you’d have seen mile after mile of these flooded forests, an incredible breeding ground for fish and a natural barrier that protected Thai farmers and their land from tsunamis,” he wrote.

The World Mangrove Atlas says that almost a fifth of the world’s mangrove ecosystems have disappeared over the previous 30 years, while the UN Environment Programme estimates that at least a quarter of all mangroves that have been destroyed are directly linked to prawn farming.

“In Britain, we consume about 85,000 tonnes of prawns a year, two-thirds of which are warm-water prawns like those farmed in Thailand. The trade is worth £450 million (20bn baht)  in Britain alone,” Wickens wrote.

“Meanwhile, thousands of miles from this marine destruction, we unthinkingly bite into a delicious skewer of tiger prawns, perhaps coated with garlic butter.”

Wickens concludes that the only solution “is to stop eating warm-water king prawns altogether.”

“I, for one, don’t want slave labour and the destruction of the ocean mixed in with my prawn cocktail,” he stated. “Do you?”

Latest stories in this category