Will those prawns you’re buying be Irish? Not a chance

Almost all of Ireland’s wild prawns are exported. So where do all the ones that we eat come from?

How happy does it make you to learn that 95 per cent of Ireland’s wild prawns are exported and that most of the prawns we eat are dubious farmed imports?

“Jumbo shrimp” is an oxymoron, not a genus, and a recent encounter with six of them in a rather posh restaurant got me thinking about where these shrimps come from, be they small, medium or large. Rather than being smothered in a Marie Rose sauce, they were artfully displayed on crushed ice, with the cocktail sauce on the side, exposing the first mouthful to an immediate quality assessment that pointed up a disparity between their price and their quality.

Just two types of prawn are native to Irish shores; neither is called tiger or jumbo. They are unlikely to be found in your local fishmonger’s, or the freezer section of any supermarket, and you certainly won’t find them in popular restaurant dishes such as scampi, jhinga masala, laksa and gambas al ajillo. So, while a plate of six frozen (and most likely farmed) Indian prawns for €23 may have raised my hackles, it also raised questions. Where are the Irish prawns? What are they called? And what exactly are we eating?

The Dublin Bay prawn is the one you should be getting when you order scampi. But you're not. Just a few chefs in top-end restaurants in Ireland are interested in using them, and only a few fishmongers carry them

The Dublin Bay prawn is native to our shores if less familiar to our palate. It looks more like a mini lobster than it does a prawn, and it is also known as a langoustine, Norway lobster or Nephrops norvegicus. In Italy it is known as scampi.


So, yes, this is the prawn you should be getting in that deep-fried nugget that so often comes with chips. But you're not. It's a premium product, and according to Juan Pablo Blanes of Glenmar Shellfish, just a few chefs in top-end restaurants in Ireland are interested in using them, and only a few fishmongers carry them. We land 10,000 tonnes of these prawns each year, and 95 per cent of them are exported.

The story is worse for the smaller Irish native shrimp, the Palaemon serratus. Only 200 tonnes are landed each year, and all are shipped to Spain and Portugal, ending up in top restaurants and at retailers like El Corte Inglés. Commanding a considerable price, they are grilled and then eaten whole, in one bite, head, eyes, tail and all. We may be well travelled, but we're not quite up to that level of continental eating yet.

Each week, while Glenmar exports full trucks of wild native prawns to Italy, Spain, France, China, Hong Kong, Taiwan, Australia and the United States, it imports containers of frozen farmed prawns from Ecuador and more premium wild prawns from Argentina for consumption here.

Many of these prawns will have come via Thailand, where they are shelled, processed and packed into 500g and 1kg bags before being shipped to our shores. Equally worrying is the fact that any Irish prawns that need to be shelled will be processed in Thailand as well. We cannot compete on labour costs.

The issue with the prawns we eat is not just the food miles they’ve clocked up but also how they are fished. The vast majority of Dublin Bay prawns are caught in-shore, using pots, and 100 per cent of the Irish natives are fished this way. Head farther out to sea, into deeper waters, and trawlers are required to harvest these bottom feeders, dredging up the seabed, disturbing the habitat and dumping sediment.

So what exactly are we eating? Stefan Griesbach of Gannet Fishmongers, in Galway, says Ireland imports four main types of prawn. The most popular, and cheapest, is a species called Litopenaeus vannamei, the Ecuadorian or white-leg shrimp, which is one of the most farmed prawns in the world. These are the prawns you'll find bagged and piled up in the freezer section.

Generally shelled, the cheaper the prawns, the more likely they are to have been treated with tripolyphosphate, which aids the absorption of water, increasing their weight by up to 10 per cent before they are frozen. Sounds appetising, right? These are the rubbery prawns that steam rather than fry when you put them in a pan, and refuse to lose their haunted pallid colour. You get what you pay for.

The black tiger prawn, or Penaeus monodon, which often gets star billing on menus, is also on the slightly dubious end of the scale, as intensive farming has resulted in a serious problem with viral diseases. Many aquaculture enterprises have switched to farming vannamei prawns instead, but black tiger prawns are still being farmed in Bangladesh and India. Also popular with Indian restaurants in Ireland is the giant freshwater prawn, or Macrobrachium rosenbergii, which is generally served in its shell.

Most prawns are caught by trawler. I wouldn't consider that sustainable. Prawns caught by small boats are not available at this time of year, and they are so expensive that people don't want to buy them

Among the premium crustaceans imported here are wild South Atlantic prawns from Patagonia, in Argentina. “Sometimes they’re called red prawns,” says Griesbach. “It’s always wild and it’s actually a very nice product. It’s a good cheaper substitute for the Irish one. As long as they are sold as what they are, I have no problem with them.”

Library St, a new restaurant in Dublin, serves Porcupine Bank langoustines, which are caught in waters up to 1,500m deep, 200km off the west coast of Ireland. Blanes says that the deeper the water, the sweeter the langoustine and the better the texture. But these langoustines will have been fished using trawlers.

So what prawns, if any, should we be eating? Griesbach says that Irish prawns are the best option, as Ireland’s inland fishery policy ensures that resources are managed. “I don’t like to use the word sustainable, because nothing we do is sustainable any more,” he says. “Most prawns are caught by trawler, and, technically, I wouldn’t consider that sustainable. Prawns caught by small boats are not available at this time of year, and they are so expensive that people don’t want to buy them.”

The most sustainable option is to buy Dublin Bay prawns in their shells, which have been landed without processing. They will have been fished using pots, in the shallow waters off our coast, in small boats that don’t have the issues associated with trawlers.

It is ultimately a matter of choice. Much of the food that lands on our plate has had a journey that has affected the planet. It’s just a matter of knowing how much. Asking the source of the prawns in a dish you order in a restaurant will at least raise awareness of the complex issues around origin.