It’s midnight aboard Andrew Puglisi’s trawler in South Australia’s Spencer Gulf and we’re biting into wild king prawns, cooked right after they drop from the nets. Their firm, plump flesh still tastes of the sea but has a creamy sweetness at its core. “I will never, ever get tired of eating these,” says Puglisi with a wide grin. Only 15 minutes earlier, these were in the ocean. In another 30 minutes, the remainder of this catch will be packed in a blast freezer, its pristine quality captured intact. “We’ve introduced systems so the crew work very fast and efficiently,” says Puglisi. “Everything is designed to catch and capture prawns in the best possible condition.”
These first Spencer Gulf king prawns of the current season are also the first Asia-Pacific prawns certified for sustainability by the Marine Stewardship Council. The Gulf fishermen want to show that their wild-caught prawns are unique – tropical prawns grown in cold waters fed from the Southern Ocean, with a distinctive crisp texture to their flesh. The Spencer Gulf and West Coast Prawn Fishermen’s Association is only the fourth Australian fishery among 134 in the world to achieve MSC certification as a sustainable fishery. Spencer Gulf king prawns will now wear the MSC blue eco-label on their packaging, and the fishermen are confident this expensive accreditation will make a difference in the marketplace.
“I’ve been using Spencer Gulf king prawns for years because they’re the best – and the care these fishermen take does translate to quality,” says Rockpool chef Neil Perry. “I believe the MSC accreditation is a smart development to emphasise the good work they’re doing. I feel good about using produce that’s sustainable, being part of a supportive and responsible network.”
The big news is that it isn’t news, exactly. Sustainability concerns saw the fleet impose its own catch regulations from the late 1970s, and the decision to seek third-party accreditation and branding was partly to combat increasing imports from Asian prawn farms and estuaries, which now constitute more than 70 per cent of the local market.
Prawn surveys are an integral part of the fishermen’s sustainable practice. On the night before each sector of the prawn fishing season begins – in November, February and April – a fleet of nine boats drops nets for test-shots of 209 areas across the fishing zone. Each trawler’s crew and an independent observer, often a government officer, record the volume, size, weight and sex of prawns taken by nets in each area. This data is collated and assessed, and the fleet is instructed not to fish in areas where test-shots indicate average prawn sizes are too small, or the numbers of spawning females are too high, to preserve breeding cycles and protect stocks of king prawns in the Gulf.
This practice also limits the size of the prawn fishing grounds: 60 per cent of the annual 2000-tonne catch is taken from only eight per cent of Spencer Gulf in fewer than 55 nights at sea each year, compared with up to 280 nights during the 1970s. This restricted season ensures sufficient time for prawns to spawn, hatch in shallow northern Gulf waters, then migrate south to deeper waters, where they reach full maturity. “We all understand the necessity of preserving for tomorrow,” says Puglisi.
On a normal night’s fishing, nets are dragged for an hour per shot. When they’re hauled in, the crew sifts prawns onto hoppers that sort the catch into five sizes. Loads of similarly sized prawns are plunged into a boiler for several minutes, dipped into a two-degree brine tank to halt the cooking process, then packed into boxes and lowered into the cargo freezer operating at 45 degrees below zero. Such swift efficiency and care ensures that the meat is of premium quality. “What we taste on the boat is what consumers taste when they thaw prawns from the box,” says Puglisi.
PHOTOGRAPHY DAVID SLY
This article was published in the January 2012 issue of Australian Gourmet Traveller.