Once upon a time, Donovan (not his real name) was a poacher – arrested three times, released three times.

All along the Whale Coast, for generations, small communities made a living as small-scale fishermen; out before dawn in their boats and home late. It was a hard life, but there were enough fish in the sea for everyone: geelbek, geelstert, silwervis, hotnotsvis, snoek; as well as crayfish, mussels, perlemoen. That was in the days before…

It was in one of these communities that Donovan grew up. Although his father was not a fisherman, all his uncles and older cousins were, and from an early age, he was out in the boats with them, swimming, diving, as much at home in the water as he was on land. He both loved the sea and respected it. The fish and other sea creatures, their habits and habitats were as familiar to him as those of his own friends. As he grew up, there was never any doubt that he would join his relatives on the boats.

In 2000 a team of government marine biologists arrived to evaluate the quality of local crayfish stocks and estimate their sustainability, with a view to opening the area up to small-scale quota fishing. Each of the local fishermen involved in the study (including Donovan), was given a quota of one ton.

“There were so many kreef in these waters,” he remembers, “that in two days we could take out our full quota. Those were good times. Our haul would be collected here, taken to the factories in Hermanus or Hout Bay, weighed, packed and sent overseas. We were paid between R300 and R400 a kilo. It was more than enough to live on.”

The scientists were happy with the outcome of their survey. The crayfish fishing season was limited to nine months in the year, allowing for the re-generation of the stock, and the quotas renewed. But then the illegal trade got in on the act and the numbers went into a sharp decline. The quota was reduced to 750kg, then to 480kg, then to 200kg, and the fishermen could no longer survive on that.

By 2010, Donovan had begun to try and make up the shortfall by going out at night to poach abalone. “At that time, there were about 10 of us in the community who were poaching. We were getting about R150 to R300 per kg, whereas these days, the poachers are getting about R470 per kg. I was caught three times and locked up three times. “In the end, I learnt one thing and was that you can make fast money by poaching, but you can go to jail just as quickly.”

By then, Donovan was married and had children and he felt he was taking too much of a risk, so he applied for a new quota and in 2011/2012 was granted one. Now he has a 15-year quota for crayfish fishing which will come to an end in 2030. In the off-season, he has found another job on-shore, which keeps bread on the table.

Since he gave up poaching, however, the environment has changed out of all proportion. Most of the 10 original poachers who were active in his day, are out of the game. Instead, in his relatively small community, there are now over 100 poachers, almost none of them local. “They come here and ask us to teach them how to dive, but most of them are useless and we’ve had many drownings in this area – they don’t understand the sea like we do,” he says.

“The other thing about these poachers is they’re not afraid of anyone. They will go out in broad daylight and do whatever they like, strip everything, down to the smallest animal and everyone is afraid of them. In the old days, the community used to organise a sea watch at night. They would go out along the rocks and if they saw someone diving in the sea or behaving suspiciously, they would report it to the police and they would arrest the culprit. But these days everyone’s afraid of the poachers, including the police.

“I mean, if you are a couple of people from the community and you meet 20 or 30 poachers coming out of the water with knives, there’s no way you’re going to confront them. Either you’ll die on the spot, or the next thing you know, your house will be burnt down. The thing is, the perlemoen close to the shore are long gone, so they come here in boats from other communities, too, and it’s like gang warfare between people who work for different buyers. You don’t want to get caught up in that.”

There is only one Department of Fisheries boat (die rooi boot), which patrols the whole length of the coast; the poachers are warned when it’s lying at anchor somewhere close by, and they don’t go out then. As soon as the boat moves on, the poachers are back in the water. “It’s like the Army coming in to the Cape Flats,” comments Donovan. “The minute they leave, the gangs are killing one another again. What we need is a boat permanently based in the Overstrand.”

And they’re not only taking perlemoen; they’re taking kreef as well, big, small, eggs, everything. Recently, there were 10 unregistered boats in their area and between them they took an estimated 180 000 tails. He finds it particularly galling that officials are continuously checking on the quota fishers. They swoop on the boats as the catches come in to check on the size of the crayfish caught. If they find any undersized specimens, they are fined R500 for each one and if there are more than 10, the fishers are locked up and their boat confiscated – no warnings, no discussions.

Donovan reckons that a good poacher these days can earn R10 000 in a week. “He lives for the day – what does he care about the future? The sea is so empty already that we can sit out there in the sun for a whole day and catch nothing. I wish we could camp off our section of the sea with a wire fence,” he sighs ruefully. “The sea is everything to me, you know; it’s a sad story.

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