Samui Wining & Dining
Prawn Shop

A look at the ups and downs of Thai prawn farming over the years.

 A look at the ups and downs of Thai prawn farming over the years.What’s the connection between rice and prawns? If you instinctively thought ‘chop suey’, then you’re only a little bit right! The answer is - Thailand is very big in both. In fact, for a very long time indeed, Thailand was the world’s biggest producer of rice. And then, suddenly . . . it wasn’t. Production dropped dramatically. Today, everything’s gone prawn-shaped and now, suddenly, Thailand is the world’s number one producer of prawns. But that’s only one little bit of the answer – the two things are closely connected, as we shall see.

The story begins a couple of decades back, with Thailand’s farmers being wooed by promised rice subsidies. Over the next few years, and goaded into activity by the lure of extra government handouts, Thailand’s rice production went into overdrive. These people were farmers, not economists, and had no way to foresee the outcome - that eventually rice prices would tumble due to a vast surplus. And, on top of that, the promised cash subsidies, by this time desperately needed, somehow failed to materialise. Thailand slipped quickly down the table, exporting only six million tons of rice in 2012 (compared to in excess of 10 million in previous years) and being topped by both India and Vietnam.

But rice grows in a very wet and watery environment. And, in-between growing seasons, for centuries farmers had taken advantage of a natural and alternative secondary harvest, not of rice, but of prawns, which in the right conditions thrive uncultivated in the temporarily-static paddy fields. Already there were many hundreds of purpose-built prawn farms dotted all along the coast of the Gulf of Thailand. And many more arose in the first decade of this millennium, as slowly awareness dawned that not only was there more profit in it, but (unlike rice) there was also a guaranteed world market simply begging for more.

Prawns are to be found in two different environments. The first is a salt-water habitat, and in Thailand, they are fished and dredged from the Gulf of Thailand and a little further south, into the South China Sea. The other is the fresh-water type. The vast majority of fresh water prawns have been commercially produced by intensive farming, simply because (unlike the seas) the harvest from fishing in streams and rivers is not commercially viable.

In Thailand, you’ll see both types of farm, although the inland prawn farms disappeared in 1998, banned by a government decree. But, around the same time, destitute former farmers, fishermen, government employees, small-scale business investors and speculators, all with little knowledge of or expertise in prawn farming, jostled each other for position on poorly-regulated public land. There was no planning of farm layouts, a lot of environmentally critical mangrove forest was destroyed and farms discharged their waste into public canals or directly into the sea. The overstocking of ponds and poor feeding efficiency added to the pollution levels, and the concentration of too many farms in one area forced the recycling of contaminated waters back into ponds and the groundwater table. It was a shambles.

The turning point came in 2002, when two different viral infections all but wiped out Thai prawn production. At which point the Departure of Agriculture took it upon themselves to clean up the industry and sort it all out, once and for all – which, admirably, they did with great success.

Now, almost universally, prawn farms have become compact, regulated, efficient and highly productive. There are essentially only two types of prawn being produced, what is commonly known as ‘shrimps’ – the little pink things referred to as ‘mondon’ prawns (from their classification taxonomy), plus the big, juicy, stripy sort – the grey ‘tiger prawns’, also known as ‘vannamei’. The latter is a far more lucrative crop, hugely in demand abroad, and they account for 95% of all of Thai prawn production.

But, alas, disaster struck again in 2013, when prawn production in Thailand suddenly dropped by 50% due to the spread of a deadly outbreak of ‘early mortality syndrome’ (EMS). But instead of bringing doom, the effect was just the opposite! Because, such is the world demand for these delicacies, that overnight the price doubled, much to the delight of Thai farmers, whose income, if anything, rose as a result, as feed and maintenance costs went down while the gross income remained the same. However, in the global scheme of things, all is not rosy and joyous. You are here, on Samui, with constant access to the freshest of king prawns, caught every day by local fishermen, and at half the price they cost back home. Savour them, and make the most of every succulent mouthful. Because, when you get back, you’ll read all sorts of dreadful things about the prawns that are now coming out of Asia. Laos, Cambodia and Vietnam are particular offenders. On the other hand, Thailand has got its act together. Unfortunately it’s almost impossible to know what comes from where. So it’s up to you to try and get the best – Thai prawns – every time you head for your local prawn shop!



Rob De Wet


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