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The King Of Prawns

By Pascal Geraghty on February 18, 2016 in Other

Photo: Tourism Australia

Photo: Tourism Australia

Who actually saw Paul Hogan’s classic ‘shrimp on the barbie’ ad? I was only two when it went to air so didn’t fully appreciate it, until now. Luring gullible ‘seppos’ Down Under with promises of slipping extra ‘shrimp’ on barbies perched atop prominent headlands with 360-degree views of our famous harbour was a master stroke – one that worked a little bit too well, if you ask me.

Nevertheless, seeing that we’re internationally renowned for always having extra shrimp close at hand, I thought we should learn a few titbits about them.

Firstly, we don’t ever call them shrimp, under any circumstances. Secondly, and what may come as a shocking revelation to the snobs in our midst, prawns actually possess a head, eyes, swimming and walking legs, and an external skeleton or shell. Most inconvenient, I know.

In Australia we have quite a number of different species residing in our exclusive economic waters. Bananas, schoolies, tigers, greasybacks and royal reds are but a few.

Along the east coast, however, king prawns are king; eastern king prawns (Melicertus plebejus) that is.

They exist only off Australia’s east coast and are scooped up by the cod-end load by cranky commercial fisherman in oceanic and estuarine waters of New South Wales and Queensland. You needn’t a quaint timber trawler, otter boards and a commercial quota to get yourself a feed, however. A productive estuary, the cloak of darkness, the correct season, the right tide and an appropriate net will often suffice. Simple as that.

King prawns along the east coast constitute a single biological population. Not so long ago there were fears that they were being loved to death, with evidence of growth overfishing (i.e. being caught too small) in NSW waters. Thankfully, however, the most recent – and most comprehensive – study encompassing data from both NSW and QLD concluded that it is in fact a sustainable stock under current fishing levels.

Eastern king prawns are whacky, quirky crustaceans. They live for a maximum of three years and spend much of their time buried in the bottom sediments; arguably not the greatest way to spend your precious few years. They can also change their colour thanks to special pigment-containing cells called chromatophores, and they periodically shed their shells to enable growth.

Juvenile and adolescent Melicertus plebejus inhabit estuaries and shallow ocean embayments. In summer and spring they bid farewell to their estuarine homes, turn left and travel northwards to spawn in waters in northern NSW up to around Mackay.
They are also omnivores so eat all sorts of things such as other small crustaceans, marine worms and molluscs. In return, they are devoured by most marine carnivores.

So there you have it. Next time you have a visitor from the God-blessed US of A who is out to come and say g’day on a fair dinkum holiday to the land of wonder, the least you can do is slip an extra eastern king prawn on the barbie for them. They’ll have the time of their life.