Greenpeace Go to the sustainable prawn guide

Australia has a long history with prawns...

When Paul Hogan famously threw ‘another shrimp on the barbie’ in 1984, he probably gave very little thought to where it came from. Back then, it was almost certainly an Australian prawn, probably caught by a local trawler. The proportion of seafood we imported was much lower then, than now and prawn farming was almost non-existent.

Fast forward to the present and prawns are one of the world’s most widely traded and consumed seafood products, the majority grown in prawn farms that now cover millions of hectares of coastline across Asia.”.


Thirty years ago, total global prawn production was less than 400,000 tonnes. In 2012, world prawn production registered a new maximum of 7.7 million tonnes. The boom in prawn consumption is a decidedly recent phenomenon, and clearly tied to the explosion of farmed prawn production,especially in Asia. That explosion has had a major impact in the countries that supply Australia’s seafood.

In the last 15 years in Australia, the quantity of prawns imported into Australia has doubled. While Australians prefer to buy local, almost a third of what we produce in Australia is exported to markets in China, Japan and the USA.


One way in which industrial fishing vessels and seafood producers keep overheads down and seafood cheap is by exploiting workers. Many countries’ seafood industries, most infamously Australia’s biggest seafood supplier, Thailand, are characterised by labour exploitation – although to be clear, Thailand is not the only culprit.

Thailand relies heavily on migrant workers to catch and process fish and prawns. Often migrant workers are not legally registered to work and are therefore vulnerable to abuse and exploitation. The plight of these workers is truly heartrending. Many stories continue to be told about the fate of workers on fishing vessels, from debt bondage to physical abuse, and in extreme cases, murder at sea. This is a photo of Min Min Thein from Myanmar. He is a victim of trafficking and forced labour.


Prawn farming operations are often associated with land degradation, negative impacts on the environment through discharge of sediments, pharmaceuticals and chemicals with waste-water. The introduction of non-native species, spread of disease to the wild, and the sustainability of wild-caught fish used in prawn feeds are also key issues.

However, the destruction of crucial mangrove forests is arguably the most severe impact that prawn farming has had. Coastal prawn farming development is estimated to have contributed to as much as 38% of mangrove forest loss worldwide

Where do our prawns come from?

Australia imports seafood from over 80 countries, and prawns from 21 countries. Vietnam is the largest source of imported prawns in Australia, followed by China and Thailand, with Malaysia also on the rise.

Due to a failure by governments to properly invest in import data collection, the Australian Customs and Border Protection Service does not record details as to which prawn species are imported into the country. However, export data from Australia’s top suppliers reveals that two species make up the overwhelming majority of prawns imported to Australia from these countries: vannamei or whiteleg prawns and giant tiger prawns.


With over 10,133 tonnes of prawns imported into Australia in 2014-2015, Vietnam is Australia’s number one source of imported prawns. Australia imported roughly equal quantities of black tiger prawns and vannamei from Vietnam, mainly as frozen raw prawns, at a value of approximately $220 million. Prawn farming is the number one cause of mangrove forest loss in this region. Loss is estimated at over 112,000 ha (over 58%) between 1980 and 2000, and has resulted in loss of biodiversity, salt intrusion and coastal erosion.

Vietnam is the world’s largest producer of black tiger prawns, with an output of 300,000 tonnes per year. The growth in vannamei prawn production and more intensive farming, which may be leading to increased use of chemicals like detergents and antibiotics is generally associated with threats of disease introductions and transmission. Image copyright: Shutterstock / Bac Lieu


In 2014-2015, Australia imported 9,522 tonnes of prawns from China, making it the second largest source of imported prawns and the largest supplier of frozen prawns in 2014-2015, almost all likely to be vannamei.

China is the world’s largest aquaculture prawn producer with an estimated 1.1 million tonne output, 600,000 tonnes of which were estimated to be vannamei prawns in 2013.24 This is lower than the 2012 output, mainly due to typhoons affecting the four provinces where vannamei prawns are produced during the main farming season. Image copyright: Shutterstock / Chenws


Thailand is one of the world’s largest producers of prawns. The country witnessed a phenomenal expansion of vannamei prawn aquaculture in the 2000s. According to the United Nations Food and Agriculture Organisation (FAO), the production of vannamei prawns in Thailand reached its peak in 2011 at 603,227 tonnes before a disease outbreak halved its production.

In 2014-2015, Australia imported 7,458 tonnes of prawns from Thailand, making Thailand the second largest exporter of frozen prawns to Australia, behind China.

Thailand exports significant quantities of tiger prawns to Australia - 1,115 tonnes in 2014, making Australia Thailand’s third most important market for this species.Image copyright: Shutterstock / Think4photop


Prawns can be farmed and fished sustainably and ethically; and consumers can choose to buy those prawns, given the right information.

Best practice farms in Australia, that utilise locally manufactured, responsibly-sourced feed, have not displaced significant coastal ecosystems, do not rely on antibiotics or chemicals, and treat waste water adequately, are able to produce significant quantities of prawns for the domestic and export market, and represent a good option for Australian consumers. This image is taken at the Hawkesbury river, NSW, where the fisher ethically sources his prawns. If new farms follow the example of industry leaders in terms of sustainability, then there is significant scope for the industry to expand.


Use this guide to help you or loved ones find prawns sold without slavery, ocean destruction or toxic chemicals.