The rare prawn

Dining, BayviewTighter quarantine restrictions are threatening to send a great Australian staple swimming off the menu, writes Micaela di Piramo.

Christmas without prawns is a bit like summer without cricket—both well-established traditions for the festive season. However, by December 2008, prawns could be so rare that the few available will most likely be so at prohibitively high prices—at least, that’s the dire prediction from a number of people in the seafood industry.

While prawns are a delicacy in many countries, in Australia we’ve been lucky enough to enjoy a steady supply at relatively low prices—up until this year, you could buy a prawn stir-fry for under $20 in most Asian restaurants and if you were entertaining at home, you wouldn’t have thought twice about buying a kilo or two of green prawns to throw on the barbie. All this is about to change, due to quarantine restrictions introduced on September 30, 2007, that have completely banned the importation of whole green prawns.

These restrictions also mean that all imported prawn cutlets and shelled raw frozen prawns are subject to testing for a number of diseases (such as white spot virus, yellowhead virus and Taura syndrome virus) before they are allowed in to the country.

“These restrictions are critically important,” says Scott Walker, spokesman for the Australian Prawn Farmers Association. “Some of these diseases can have devastating effects. In Asia, several million prawns have been lost already due to white spot syndrome.”

Walker is quick to point out that these diseases are not a threat to human health but are lethal to prawns and can wipe out entire populations. “It’s really important to make sure these viruses do not come into the country,” he says. “We don’t want a repeat of the horse flu situation. The restrictions are like a double safety mechanism.”

The local prawn industry will benefit in the long-term, says Walker. “In Thailand, they’ve had to stop farming tiger prawns. In India, they farm a tonne to a hectare because of disease issues. In Australia, we can farm 12 tonnes to a hectare. The only way to protect our industry is with ongoing restrictions.”

“No disease can come from a frozen prawn,” counters Norman Grant, a consultant for the Seafood Importers Association of Australia. “Diseases can only be transmitted from live prawns so there is no parallel with the horse flu.”

Grant argues that the local prawn industry has gone through “a tough few years” due to changing weather patterns, a weak Australian dollar and the Federal Government reclaiming a significant portion of the Queensland coast. He believes local prawn farmers may feel threatened by the plentiful and cheaper imports.

While Grant understands the need to protect the local industry, he points out that Australia already can’t produce enough prawns to meet demand and that restrictions will result in an acute shortage—leading to a potential loss of up to half a billion dollars annually in the food service industry .

“In Australia, some 3000 tonnes of prawns are farmed and another 20,000 tonnes are caught from the wild each year. However, we consume about 40,000 tonnes of prawns annually, which leaves a massive shortfall. Restaurateurs, caterers and retailers rely on imported prawns.”

The restrictions, he says, will affect almost half of the available supply and will result in steep price hikes. It can cost up to $20,000 per container to have the required tests carried out, which will be passed on to consumers. But more importantly, he says, the testing methods are faulty.

“Say you have a batch of 100 per cent disease-free prawns. You’ll still get about 15 per cent testing positive because of errors in the system. So perfectly good produce is being sent back and this is putting Asian suppliers off-side.”

What’s more, says George Costi, managing director of De Costi Seafoods, locally caught prawns that are sent overseas for processing are also considered “imported” and thus subject to testing. Because of the errors in the testing methods, Australian prawns can also be rejected and sent back to the country where they were processed.

“We’ve enjoyed good relationships with our suppliers overseas,” says Costi. “Now they are asking why their product is good enough for the European and American markets but not Australia. There’s a danger suppliers will stop sending product to us.”

Costi predicts the effects of the quarantine restrictions will start to show up over the next month or two. So far, he says, it’s been business as usual for two reasons.

“Over the Christmas period, the main product sold is whole cooked prawns. The demand for green prawns does not escalate during the festive season.”

Suppliers had a chance to stock up before the new restrictions were in place. “But anyone needing to restock now will pay big prices.”

Prawn cutlets have already increased by about $8 per kilo, says Costi. “And I believe the prices will increase again in the next few weeks by another $3 to $4 per kilo. Green prawn meat has gone up by $5 or $6 per kilo and will go up again. Imported prawns, which usually retail for $16 to $17 a kilo, will soon cost up to $26 per kilo.”

These are significant increases for anyone running a business. “Restaurants and retailers will be badly affected,” says Costi. “They’ll have to put their prices up or take prawn dishes off the menu. It will end up costing the public in the long run.”

Gordon Garratley, general manager of G&D Seafood Importers, says the restrictions have had a significant effect on business.

“Green prawns were a big part of our turnover. On average we were importing four containers of green prawns from Asia each month. Since the restrictions were introduced, we’ve have to stop importing green prawns. It has cost us hundreds of thousands of dollars and we are only a small player in the market.”

Like Costi, Garratley expects the full effects of the prawn shortage to hit around Easter and predicts the prices of local produce will “increase dramatically”.

Garratley believes the tighter quarantine restrictions are here to stay and says they are trialling marinated prawns as a substitute for green prawn meat. It is too soon to tell whether it’s an acceptable option in the market.

At the time of writing, it was also too soon for many restaurateurs to properly feel the impact of the restrictions.

Maurice Esposito, owner of Melbourne-based Toofey’s, says there was an abundance of prawns this summer and that price was not an issue.

“As far as we can tell, costs haven’t fluctuated at all.”

Guy Dupen, general manager of Brisbane-based Pier Nine, has been in the industry since 1983 and agrees with Esposito.

“We buy our prawns from local fishmongers and they were no more expensive this summer than they were 12 months ago. If anything, we noticed a price downturn.”

But over at Joseph Alexanders—also based in seafood-loving Brisbane—chef Paul Rumary says he has noticed a considerable price increase in green prawns: “Prices for decent prawns have jumped about 20 per cent,” he says.

The team at Joseph Alexanders has chosen not to modify their menu—nor have they passed on the cost increase to their clientele.

“We’ve absorbed the extra costs,” says Rumary. “Our customers love prawns, so we want to make sure there will always be prawn dishes on our menu.”

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