Prawnography: the big and the small

Ballina's revamped Big Prawn. Photo Mary Garder

Ballina’s revamped Big Prawn. Photo Mary Gardner

Story & photo Mary Gardner

The Big Prawn, now fronting the Bunnings car park in Ballina, is overwhelming: weighing more than 33 tonnes, costing $400,000 in repairs. This icon is one of Australia’s few ‘Big Things’ that’s been successfully upgraded. It’s as huge for what it represents in Australian culture: cooked crustaceans. But what of the green and brown living creatures themselves?

The two most common Australian prawns caught in NSW and Queensland are eastern king and school prawn. They are known as penaeids. They differ from those of the northern hemisphere, which are carideans.  The difference is down to female reproductive habits.

Both penaeid and caridean adult females finish moulting by copulating with the smaller males. The female shells are still quite soft. The male mustn’t be moulting as he needs a hard shell and petasma, that appendage underneath and near the top of the abdomen. This reproductive organ transfers a sperm packet to the female, who holds it in place with a smaller appendage called the thelycum.  This process ensures the eggs are fertilised internally.

So far so good. But now the caridean swims in the Gulf of Mexico, the North Atlantic or the Mediterranean, nursing the fertilised eggs attached to her tail until they hatch. Our own Australian penaeid simply swims out to deep sea, shedding the fertilised eggs immediately. All the adults continue living only a few years at most.

Little worlds

Over three weeks, the penaeid eggs hatch and larvae grow, completely dependent on the temperature, salinity and currents of the open sea. It’s imagined they drift south, though they are feisty enough to steer themselves in their little worlds towards food and away from predators.

The larvae morph through three body shapes. Finally, they look like little prawns and travel into estuaries well south of their birth place. Within a year, almost grown, they leave for a last great sea adventure.

In 1990, tagged king prawns were found in Ballina, having travelled from as far away as Gippsland Lakes, Sydney or South West Rocks. As adults travelling north in the open sea, they court others who grew up in different estuaries. By contrast, tagged school prawns only travelled about 120 kilometres and were more likely to mate within populations of a single river. Starting as solitary eggs the size of a pinhead, finishing from 13 to 30cm each, collecting in great schools after journeys up to hundreds of kilometres – nothing kitsch about the lives of either of these penaeids.

Prawn future

Nothing sentimental about the market realities rather. NSW stocks appear to depend on a steady supply of young from Queensland. More are caught in Queensland than NSW. Trawls for Australian prawns include excluders to help turtles escape capture. By-catch, involving more than a dozen other species, as well as undersize prawns, is an ongoing concern. Numbers of boats are more limited than years ago but the viability of the fishery is debated. Meanwhile, much of the seabed is raked over so often, creating underwater change without respite. Thanks to climate change, warmer waters hurry spawning by up to a month for many species. Who knows what else will happen next?

The price of Australian prawns is often undercut by overseas imports. These are as much a worry as imported clothing from sweatshops. Journalist Taras Grescoe and biologist Daniel Pauly all warn that ‘cheap’ prawns come from newfangled ponds, managed with pesticides and antibiotics, carved out of old-growth mangrove forests and laboured by exploited casual staff.

There’s an old Aussie saying: ‘don’t come the raw prawn with me!’ or ‘don’t expect me to swallow such a slippery deceit’.  In these globalised days, we are all forced to find deeper meanings with our icons, kitsch and slang. Otherwise, we and our international neighbours risk being left ‘a prawn short of a barbie’.

3 responses to “Prawnography: the big and the small”

  1. Leonard Martin says:

    Well- the legendary Mokany brothers- Attila and Louis- brought this to the highways of NSW, along with the Big Merino.
    Each have been preserved much to the respect of these boys by the towns they contributed to.
    Hence famous in their own ways because of the support of the primary industries they were built to represent. Which the people have never forgotten.

    There is so much more the Brothers contributed, their beginnings in the original Golden Fleece service station at Collector en route to the national capital.
    Then the Weinerwald Restaurants at their service stations in Goulburn and Albury, later to be called Vienna Worlds.
    The bench mark was the 450 seat Billabong Station theme restaurant at South Goulburn at the site of the Big Merino and Australian Agrodome, where on a winter Friday night at least 13 coaches would be off loading their passengers at the same time for an evening meal,en route to the snow or on to Melbourne or Adelaide. And every coach at 50 people per coach were all served with food, drinks and alcohol if required within an average time of 3 and a half minutes.
    These were the 1980’s days of still high cost air fares when coach companies were taking the travelling public between capital cities.

    Hence the Mokany Brothers- New Australians as you were coined in the 1960’s- we shall remember you.
    But as I personally say as your fellow Aussie and along with your other Hungarian contemporaries and with only the greatest respect- “Not bad for a bloody wog !!!”

  2. Mark Graham says:

    Wasn’t the big oyster the close sibling of the big prawn?

    One has been resurrected as the frontispiece of a car yard, the other adorning a mega-hardware chain…

    We have learnt of the Crustacean, but how are our Molluscan filter feeders faring ?

  3. m gardner says:

    thanks for your query –I could –and will — write a thesis in response! But as a preview (or review) check out

    And exactly where is the giant oyster then and now? Anyone know?

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