Shock! Horror! That is the invariable reaction of Overstrand residents every time there’s a new abalone bust in the area, as there was last week in an upmarket townhouse complex in Sandbaai. Yet poaching incidents consistently occur in plain sight in this part of the world; it can hardly be a surprise anymore. How could the other householders in the complex not have known what was going on in their midst? The smell alone would have been impossible to miss.

Live abalone confiscated during the recent bust in Sandbaai. PHOTO: Supplied

A full abalone processing plant was being operated in every section of the house, involving live and dried abalone worth around R3.9 million. And this was obviously not a once-off, hit-and-run operation. Equally, a casual stroller in broad daylight along the rocky shoreline between Gansbaai and Pringle Bay is very likely any day of the week to encounter the Zama-Zamas of the ocean either in the sea in wetsuit and goggles, or casually emerging from it with their catch in hand. Only a couple of weeks ago, there was a shoot-out between poachers and police just outside of Kleinmond.

The web of intrigue surrounding abalone poaching is difficult to unravel, involving, as it does, transnational drug, prostitution and money laundering operations, mostly controlled by powerful cartels in the East (see The Village NEWS of 19 June 2019). However, there is also evidence of rampant corruption in this country, mainly linked to officials employed by various State departments and agencies, tasked with protecting the natural resources of our country.

Ironically, in contrast to the criminal activity surrounding abalone poaching in the Overstrand, this same region is also home to a lucrative legal abalone industry, involving nine well-developed farms. How, one wonders, does the illegal trade affect their business and to what extent are they involved in attempts to eradicate it?

Tim Hedges, Managing Director of Abagold in Hermanus, sketches a fascinating picture of the global industry: It appears that South Africa is, in fact, quite a minor player on the world market. Its legal output is only approximately 1 500 tons of the total 170 000 tons produced annually. China itself, with extensive cage farming operations in the South China Sea, produces approximately 85% of the legal abalone on the market. Other producers are Mexico, Chile, Australia, New Zealand, Japan and Korea.

Most interesting of all, however, is that none of these other countries, thanks to their stringent management and control systems, has a poaching problem. Some of them, like Japan, harvest on a strict quota rotation and are actually able to restock the ocean.

With all these competitors, why is South African perlemoen so sought-after in Asia then? It seems that the sub-specie, naturally available and produced on aquaculture farms in this country, Haliotis Midae, has a particular flavour and delicate texture that ensures a place for itself in the premium range of the market. It is a prized luxury food item to be found only in the top restaurants in China, or, in canned form, presented as an expensive gift on special occasions.

“The wild product poached from our oceans, amounting to between 2 000 and 3 000 tons a year,” explains Tim, “feeds into a completely different market from ours, due to the processing methodology employed by the illegal exporters of this valuable resource. Because the sea is becoming so overfished, the poachers are taking out smaller and smaller specimens (which, of course, has disastrous implications for the future survival of the species) and the flavour tends to be less refined than the farmed product, considering the unsophisticated backyard processing taking place. That means that it sells for a lower price on the Asian markets and fills a more accessible niche for the ordinary man in the street.

Poached abalone in a Chinese medicine and abalone shop in Guanchzhou, China. PHOTO: Tim Hedges

“The resilience of these shellfish is a constant source of amazement to us,” he adds. “We kept thinking that within 12 to 15 years, the stocks would have been completely decimated, but they continue to re-appear. We’re not sure if they’re moving to greater depths or into more inaccessible spots, but, unfortunately, the poachers are becoming more and more sophisticated and resourceful themselves and as has recently occurred at Robben Island, they keep finding them.”

Discussions have been held about the possibility of restocking the sea with farmed product, but the authorities are not keen on this idea, as they fear inbreeding, due to a lack of genetic diversity in the captive species. In any case, there wouldn’t be much point while unbridled poaching continues. As it is, the industry worldwide is under stress, due to global warming on the one hand and China’s current trade wars with the USA, on the other. No expansion is currently being undertaken in any of the countries where abalone is farmed, except China itself.

In our region, recent environmental challenges (like the two unprecedented red tides of 2017 and 2019), along with the protests and political unrest have had a major impact on the industry, leaving production way behind schedule. Abagold alone employs 400 people, impacting on probably around 1200 individuals in our communities. Over and above that, it supports local businesses for as many of its supplies and services as it can. However, on a world-wide scale, aquacultural methods are becoming more streamlined and cost-effective, and if the local industry is to continue being competitive it will have to be more productive and efficient; it will have to produce the highest quality product at a significantly lower cost.

In the end, though, like a vicious circle, most of the local challenges come back to the pressure of unemployment and poverty, together with venal, blatant corruption on the part of officialdom. As a result of the re-structuring of the fishing quota system by the government some years ago, many small-scale fishers whose families had lived off the sea for generations were deprived of an adequate living. Out of desperation, they became easy prey to the Godfathers of the poaching industry.

As Tim Hedges points out: “Until these circumstances change, there will be no incentive for the poaching to stop – or until all the abalone has finally been wiped from our oceans forever.” And then, once again, the Zama-Zamas will have nothing more to mine and the endless cycle of unemployment and crime will repeat itself. Tim is, nevertheless, cautiously optimistic that a workable solution can be found, if only political will can be mustered.

“In 2016,” he says, “a remarkable initiative was taken by the then Western Cape MEC for Agriculture and Fisheries, Beverley Schäfer when she organised a series of public hearings on the problem of abalone and rock lobster poaching. She included everyone, from small-scale fishers, to the scientists and commercial aquaculturists – even poachers – and they all had the opportunity to have their say. What emerged was a very thorough report accurately reflecting the sentiments expressed at these meetings and making suggestions for dealing with the matter, both from the point of view of putting a stop to the poaching and rooting out departmental corruption.

“One of the issues in this regard is that Department of Agriculture, Forestry and Fisheries (DAFF) officials are prohibited from working overtime, so many of the poachers schedule their operations to take place after-hours, but far more serious questions have been asked about what happens to confiscated stock after a bust. What we do know is that there are any number of possibilities for very lucrative, but illegal activities to take place. We are also aware that most of that stuff is finding its way onto the Asian market. What we are not sure of is who is benefiting.”

MEC Beverley Schäfer, now Western Cape Minister of Economic Opportunities, which includes agriculture, economic development and tourism, takes up the story herself. “It is estimated that since 2006, more than 96 million abalone have been poached out of Western Cape waters which amounts to a loss of around R1 billion a year to our Western Cape economy. The thing is, after a bust, when the abalone has been taken to the central storage site and is auctioned off, the income is supposed to go into a special fund to protect our marine resources. However, the DAFF has been telling Parliament that they do not have the money or the capacity to adequately protect the coast or the legal fishers. So where’s that money going to? For government to be selling poached abalone at commercial prices on the international market is completely unacceptable and very dangerous. There is corruption going on right up to the highest levels of government.”

She is absolutely determined, she says, to continue driving this project. Her 2016 100-page report was tabled before the parliamentary select committee and discussed; then nothing further came of it. “Since then,” she says, “poaching has continued to escalate by leaps and bounds. We made a number of serious suggestions about overhauling the small-scale fishing industry in terms of quotas, and in fact making this a provincial competency rather than a national one. We also believe this could provide the opportunity for a valuable private/public partnership with the commercial sector. At its core would be the re-establishment of a viable small-scale fishing industry, with the fishers themselves acting as stewards of this sustainable resource.

“We are not in a position to take on the illegal transnational trade in marine resources – that is up to the law-enforcement authorities, but we can try to cut off the source on our side. I believe that the new National Minister, Barbara Creecy has the will to tackle the corruption in DAFF head on, but it will not be an easy task, because I am convinced it goes all the way to the top. From our side in the Western Cape, we will give her all the support we can. I am obsessed with the need to put an end to this blight on our industry and to provide sufficient protection for our marine life and our fisheries.”

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