Prawn Trawler destroys marine life
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An Australian tourism commercial starring Paul Hogan entices holidaymakers with the mouthwatering promise: 'Come to Australia and we'll throw another prawn on the barbie.' What Paul omits to add is: 'And we'll also chuck 20 dead fish back into the sea.' For every prawn we eat, 20 or more other fish, crabs, sponges, sea cucumbers, snakes and even turtles perish, wastefully shovelled back into the sea. The prawn trawling industry is notorious for wasteful fishing and the worst operators can often be found working tropical waters. An estimated 11 million tons of fish are discarded by fisheries in Australian waters every year.

The main areas for the prawn trawling industry in Australia are the warm shallow waters off northern Western Australia, the Northern Territory and Queensland. The main companies operating here are the Northern Prawn Fishery (NPF), which extends along some 6,000km of coastline from Cape York to Cape Londonderry, the Torres Strait Fishery, the Queensland East Coast Trawl, which extends for more than 2,000km and a number of more localised fisheries along the coast of Western Australia, such as those in Carnarvon and the Gulf of Exmouth. The deplorable bycatch and discard of unwanted fish from this region is colossal. On an average night, a single trawler discards some 3.5 tons of marine life, or 200,000 individual sea creatures. More than 240 species of marine life - including 75 species of fish, 11 species of sharks, six species of turtles, and several crustaceans, sponges, echinoderms and molluscs - are dumped every year. These horrifying statistics have earned an appalling reputation for prawn trawlers in this part of the world.

Is this notoriety well-earned or are prawn trawlermen getting a bad rap? I went with an open mind to see for myself. First port of call was trawler skipper Jamie Correia. He works on the only operator-owned trawler of the 16 licenced vessels currently harvesting the Gulf of Exmouth in Western Australia. The other 15 are operated by the M G Kailis Group of Companies, dedicated to the exploitation of nature's marine bounty for export to Japan, south-east Asia, Europe, the UK and the US.

Prawn fishermen in the Gulf of Exmouth rise at 4pm and work through the night, few getting any rest until after 10 o'clock the next morning. It is back-breaking work. Their hands are raw from pulling ropes, and fingers sore from handling prawn and crab spikes. They also suffer excruciating punctures from stonefish or catfish. When I boarded Jamie's trawler, the Odete C, at 3.45 one autumn afternoon, his five crew members were still asleep below deck. While the other 15 boats bring back the prawns, untreated, each morning to their base at Learmonth, the Odete C works like a floating prawn factory. The catch is sorted; graded for size; packed fresh or cooked into cartons; and stored in the boat's freezer, which is big enough to handle 16 tons of prawns.

There's no time to marvel at the glorious sunsets over the golden ridge of the North Western Cape. The crew members rise to the stench of dead fish, stretch to relieve sore muscles, weigh anchor and grab some food while catching up on the evening news. I had expected at least a couple of roughies, temperamental from lack of sleep and lack of space. I was wrong. Tracy, Tamara, Robello, Garrick and Cat - the Odete C's crew -are some of the nicest people I have come to know. They work an 18-hour day, eat together and cook for each other, sharing tiny cabins no larger than an average lavatory. Privacy does not exist on trawlers. Except for full moons and the two nights following it when the prawns hide to moult, the crew works through the season from April to November.

'Tonight is going to be a big night,' says Jamie. The reason for his optimism: he's returning to an area that had been left to regenerate during the last season. This is one of the measures taken by the fisheries watchdog to prevent permanent depletion of stock. The gulf is divided into four areas, one of which is designated a no-go area for fishing each season. The other three areas are harvested in rotation, depending on the size of their yields. When the average catch of the fleet falls below 150kg per vessel, it is time to switch to the next area. Areas near to shore are zoned as nursery grounds, strictly off-limits to trawlers.

As soon as the sun sets, Jamie bellows an order to lower the trawling gears.He is able to maximise fuel efficiency and enhance productivity on each expedition, thanks to a state-of-the-art GPS (global positioning satellite) plotter, which helps him avoid covering the same ground, and a colour depth-sounder, which indicates bottom composition and density of marine life, The boat is equipped with two main nets, one on each side, plus a smaller unit at the stern, a sort of sampling net. The sampling unit is winched up every 45 minutes to give an indication of the quality and density of the haul in the main units. The sample also gives an indication of when to bring up the main nets.

The main nets are suspended from two 6m-long metal booms, while stabilizers prevent the vessel from rolling. Each net is fixed with two white trawl boards connected to a sled in the middle. This sled is used to take the net to the bottom and is designed to keep the net open while the boat is moving. A metal chain attached to the bottom of the net scrapes the sea floor, stirring up prawns, and anything else in its path.

The atmosphere is charged with expectation, tension and anxiety as the main nets are winched up. There's no room for mistakes. The crew performs the routine with clockwork precision. The nets break the surface and the bounty is spread over the sorting tables. Time is of the essence. Like Formula One racing cars coming in for a pit-stop, the nets are quickly emptied and returned to the sea with incredible swiftness. This is all the more remarkable when a big shark, ray or sea snake is hauled up. Crew members can often be injured from the thrashing around and almost invariably, the catch is sent flying all over the deck.

Then comes the horrible moment of truth. The sorting tables are a scene of diabolical carnage. The sight of wholesale death never ceases to stun me each time the nets are raised. My stomach heaves and my nerves are engaged on a rollercoaster ride; both body and mind are reeling at what I can see and smell. Thousands of juvenile triggerfish, lizardfish, gobies, sea perch, tilefish, flounders, flatheads, big-eyed squirrelfish, dragonets, pufferfish, catfish and new-born sharks are robbed of their chance of reaching maturity. Deep-sea dwellers are not spared either. Sponges, sea cucumbers, rays, cuttlefish, crabs, mantis shrimps, sea stars, basket stars, sea pens and octopus are all victims. This massacre is for the sake of a few prawns among the mountains of carcasses. Except for a few decently-sized squid, the enormous bycatch is simply swept back into the sea. Few survive the trauma.

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