5 July, 2023
Is there any word that screams “celebration” better than prawns? Dipped in a zesty chimichurri, dripping in garlic or scattered on your Thai noodles, prawns are our ‘good time go-to’, offering that unmistakable buttery flavour and a good source of omega-3. “And I mean, who doesn’t love a prawn on the barbie?” asks Bryan Van Wyk, Operations Manager for Austral Fisheries, who supply Coles with these ocean beauties. When you consider the tireless lengths fishermen go to when sourcing juicy Coles banana prawns in a sustainable way, those succulent morsels become all the more enjoyable.
Many of us might associate April 1 with practical jokes, but for Coles banana prawn fishers, it’s the day they say goodbye to their loved ones for a two-and-a-half month stint floating on the Gulf of Carpentaria.
With only 52 licensed vessels allowed in the vast 880,000km² fishery that spreads from the tip of Cape York in Queensland to the Western Australia/Northern Territory border, skippers like Dwayne Klinkhamer and Bryan rely on years of experience, technology and gut feeling to find where the most prawns are lurking. “Banana prawn larvae get blown into creeks and rivers along the whole top end [of Australia] and the wet season washes all those prawns out into the ocean where they grow really quickly,” Dwayne explains. “They travel a great distance to find an area [with ideal] bottom composition and get very close together in schools, which we call a ‘mark’ … and that’s what we target.”
To the untrained eye, there’s blue water as far as the eye can see, but to fishing veterans like Dwayne, there are clear clues he’s learnt during his 31 years at sea. “It’s a massive area to cover, and you’ve got to learn where the prawns are going to be based on the time of the month and the moon phases [which affect the tides],” he says. “You could be sitting around for three or four days with nothing happening, then the tide will come up and ‘bang!’ they’re there. The skill of being a fisherman is picking the right times at the right place and being able to catch the prawns. We keep log books and understand past history, then it’s having the courage to put it all on the line and go somewhere you think is going to be good.”
Catching and freezing up to 10 tonnes of banana prawns is all in a day’s work for the tireless crew. “We go really hard for a couple of months – a lot of it’s endurance when we’re out at sea, and the crew gets into [strong physical] shape pretty quickly,” Dwayne says. “When things get a bit quiet, they keep busy with maintenance on the boat. It’s a seven-day-a-week job so there are no days off – if the prawns are on, we’re on!”
The boat can carry up to 80 tonnes of prawns before they head back to shore to unload or transfer it to a “mothership” at sea. “We grade and process them on board, putting them into boxes and snap-freezing them,” Dwayne explains. “Freezing them like this on the boat maintains that flavour of the ocean,” adds Bryan.
It’s reassuring to understand the lengths these fishermen go to, to make sure they leave the ocean the way they found it. As a Marine Stewardship Council [MSC]-certified fishery, Austral Fisheries is committed to maintaining healthy prawn “stock” and use nets with turtle excluders and bycatch reduction devices that allow sea creatures to easily swim free. “In 2016, Austral Fisheries became the first seafood company in the world to be certified carbon neutral [by Climate Action],” explains Dylan Skinns, Sale & Marketing Manager for Austral Fisheries. “To offset [our] emissions, we plant 200,000 trees every year and have planted more than 1,000,000 trees in the Yarra Yarra Biodiversity Corridor in Western Australia.”
As a seafood-lover himself, Dwayne couldn’t be prouder to steer an operation that helps Australians enjoy delicious prawns without sacrificing the ocean. “We provide wild-caught [prawns] that are full of flavour,” he says. “We’re farmers of the sea and we want to look after our ocean as much as possible and hope [customers] only buy products from MSC-certified fisheries.”
And these fishermen just love their jobs. “The ocean is my happy place,” explains Bryan. You can almost taste that passion in their work. “When you buy our banana prawns from Coles, you can expect one of the best prawns in quality, texture and taste and caught using improved sustainable practices by hard-working Australians for Australians.”