7 Apr 2015


We once wrestled 10 to 15 foot long sharks. They were heavy. They were fighters. I had mates who had their legs broken, as the shark caught in our prawn net struggled. But as prawn fisherman, we always tried our best to get it back into the sea.

I remember the violent pain that once shot into my shoulder from the barb of a stingray I was trying to rescue from our catch of prawns we’d just loaded into the trawler. I spent five months in hospital, because the stingray’s barb went gangrenous. I lost a chunk of my shoulder.

This was our life as fishermen on the wild sea until the introduction of ‘bycatch devices’ seriously reduced catching sharks, dolphins, marine turtles and seabirds in our nets. It’s revolutionised the way we make our nets and it’s helped the Northern Prawn Fishery become more sustainable.

I’ve worked for every major fishing company in the Gulf Coast, around North Queensland. The Northern Prawn Fishery has over 50 boats, some commercial, some independently owned. I think it’s the best fishery in the world. Fishing is an industry for anyone who’s adventurous. It’s a lifestyle. You either like it or you don’t. The opportunities are always there. If you show any sort of determination, you’ll get a go.

Young  Neville Palmer
© Neville Palmer / James Sherwood

Over the years, I’ve developed a passion for net making. In the old days, when I first started as a young prawn fisherman, if you couldn’t make a new net or fix up a hole, they just told you to go away. If you weren’t working, you were making nets. The first captain I ever worked for was a fanatic about net gear, which is where I developed my passion to make nets. Those days when we experimented with our net design, we never shared our secrets – because if you told just one person, everyone down the road would end up knowing your secret.

Nowadays, there aren’t any secrets, but still, every net maker designs their nets differently, depending on how they were shown by their dad and their dad before that, or their uncle, or someone they’ve worked with. Because we know how to design nets, we’re now able to create smaller, more economical and more marine life friendlier nets. We’ve spent a lot of time developing a material that’s reduced the drag on the ocean floor. The nets don’t get left behind on reefs, and the material is super strong and weather resistant. You can get up to four years use from one net, whereas in the old days you were lucky to get two. There are no spots in the net where fish can congregate, or get stuck.

The trick to great net design is to deliver a prawn product which is perfect and at the same time help any type of fish, or large sea predator, such as a dolphin, stingray or a shark, escape through passages in the net. This is one reason why we’ve invested a lot in improving our bycatch reduction - like Turtle Exclusion Devices (TEDs). This makes everybody happy.

If I have two friends, we can make a net in a day. I used to work for a guy called Popeye, and by the time he retired I’d helped make over 2,000 nets for him and installed 1,400 new TEDs. And, I’ve installed around 700 TEDs for Austral, where I work now.

We’re after prawns. We don’t want anything else. What we learned way back is that if you wipe out all the prawn stock then predators just take over, and if you wipe out all the predators, this causes an imbalance too. You don’t just take what you want. That’s why fishermen don’t take the fins from the sharks anymore, and sell all sorts of marine life they used to find.

I’d say a large number in the industry are green now, because you’re not going to survive, if you aren’t. You’ve got to leave something for the next lot. You’ve got to leave something to breed. So I feel lucky to work with people today who care about the ocean. If we catch anything female like bugs, scampi, creatures that’ve got eggs like small fish, we’ve been trained that it’s not worth it to take it. Better to let them breed first, or else we’ll have nothing left.

See Neville’s story:

With the support of WWF-Australia, the Northern Prawn Fishery, Australia’s largest, received sustainability certification from the Marine Stewardship Council (MSC) in 2012. MSC is an independent non-profit organisation whose certification is recognised globally by WWF as the world’s best and most rigorous environmental assessment for fisheries.

WWF-Australia has partnered with leading seafood businesses like Coles, John West, Blackmores and Tassal, to help them make the transition towards sourcing and stocking only ecologically sustainable seafood and fish oil products.