A potentially impactful report on abalone poaching was released last week by the Western Cape Police Ombudsman, Mr JJ Brand. His message seemed to be putting the powerful Abalone Mafia on notice: ‘Ask not for whom the bell tolls; it tolls for you’.

Responding to a ‘complaint of poor response’ at SAPS stations in Gansbaai, Kleinmond, Hermanus and Stanford to criminal activities in general and abalone poaching in particular, the ombudsman found that the complaints could be substantiated and made a number of significant recommendations to the Western Cape MEC for Community Safety, Albert Fritz, for his urgent attention.

In an article which appeared in last week’s edition of The Village NEWS, we attempted to sketch a picture of the global abalone industry, both legal and illegal, and the point was made that of the seven or so countries producing abalone for the international market, South Africa is the only one which has a poaching problem. All the others have tight management and security systems in place to obviate this practice.

Widespread poverty and deleterious policies regarding small-scale fishing quotas in this country have certainly contributed to the crisis, but there is undeniable proof that this is far from being just a local problem. It has become a major transnational racket involving drugs, prostitution and money laundering run by secretive criminal networks and controlled by powerful cartels in the East.

It may be difficult for local law enforcement authorities to tackle the international heart of the problem, but the ombudsman’s recommendations, if implemented, will certainly go some way towards limiting the wholesale stripping of the oceans along the Western Cape coast currently taking place.

According to MEC Fritz, the ombudsman has requested that his findings be urgently escalated to the National Minister of Police, Bheki Cele. Apart from once again emphasising the serious need to address the poor police to population ratio and vehicle allocations for detectives in the Overberg cluster, the main focus of his report was on tightening up policing strategies to deal more effectively with abalone poaching.

Putting paid to abalone poaching

In the statement issued by MEC Fritz, he undertook also to refer the ombudsman’s findings to the Standing Committee for Community Safety in the Western Cape Provincial Parliament, which will further review the report as per the constitutional powers of such a multi-party committee.

Another recommendation was that the Provincial Minister of Environmental Affairs should address the backlog concerning the disposal of abalone at the storage facilities with the National Minister of Environmental Affairs and Fisheries. MEC Fritz gave the assurance that he would work closely with the necessary stakeholders to ensure that these recommendations were reviewed and implemented, using every tool at his disposal to safeguard rural and urban communities in the Western Cape against poaching of any kind.

Although the Chairperson of the Provincial Standing Committee on Community Safety was approached for comment on these developments, none was forthcoming. However, the response from former MEC Beverley Schäfer, Provincial Minister of Economic Opportunities, was positive, with certain caveats. In 2017, following an extensive series of public hearings to explore solutions to the problem of abalone poaching, she had tabled a report making extensive practical recommendations regarding its curtailment, which have, however, remained largely dormant.

One of the ombudsman’s recommendations which she is particularly happy about is that abalone poaching should be upgraded to the status of a transnational crime in line with rhino horn or ivory poaching. “I can’t actually believe that it has taken them so long to treat it with the seriousness it deserves and of course that also means fitting the punishment to the crime. Up to now it has been regarded as a relatively minor offence.”

She is also happy that he has made a point of requesting that steps be taken to better control the storage of confiscated abalone. There was reportedly a backlog of over 200 tons stored in the unit until recently when another break-in took place and much of it disappeared, with allegations of inside involvement. “This is organised crime – it is not a random event and these criminals are not acting on their own,” former MEC Schäfer points out.

“Once again one must also ask, what is happening to the money that is supposed to be generated by the auctioning off of confiscated abalone? It should be going into the Marine Living Resources Fund for the protection of our coastal waters, but it is unclear exactly how much is in the fund and how much of it has been used for this purpose. An urgent investigation should be launched into this matter. I feel confident that very little money has been ploughed into protecting the Overberg’s coastal resources.

“This is an important document and it does attempt to hold police to greater account,” she continues, “but it is also up to National Minister Barbara Creecy to launch a thorough investigation into the officials of the Fisheries Department. I believe she must read this report and act firmly in terms of the alleged complicity of members of that Department. I have faith in her effectiveness as a Minister and I will make sure that she also receives my 2017 report, to read in conjunction with this one.”

She emphasises once again that more effective law enforcement is only part of the solution to the problem of abalone poaching. Parallel processes should be taking place simultaneously, the most important being the urgent development and implementation of an all-encompassing inter-departmental anti-poaching strategy, involving both national and provincial levels of government as well as agencies like the Hawks, instead of relying on the largely uncoordinated, under-resourced and haphazard efforts currently taking place.

“The DAFF (Department of Agriculture, Forestry and Fisheries) doesn’t even have a boat to patrol the coast and it has about two officials trying to monitor sometimes up to 1 000 poachers in the Overberg. Naturally, they are too afraid to take any action. I mean this is ridiculous!”

She is still adamant that the issuing of small-scale fishing licences should be a provincial competency and not a national one. “Only three provinces are really affected and for some official sitting in Pretoria to make these determinations doesn’t make any sense. We are on the ground, we know what’s going on and it would be in everybody’s interests, if we could work with the fishermen to protect our resources.”

What seems clear is that our role as a local authority, environmental group or concerned citizen is to continue putting pressure on the various departments to carry out their mandate, to go on asking questions and to hold all stakeholders to account, before our abalone is only a distant memory.

The following recommendations were made by the  Police Ombudsman with particular reference to abalone poaching: 

  • Ensure that organised projects regarding poaching are initiated and investigated by the Organized Crime Unit of SAPS. Abalone poaching should be classified as organised crime in terms of Section 16 of the South African Police Service Act, Act 68 of 1995;
  • Establish an Environmental Court, in consultation with the National Minister of Justice and Constitutional Development;
  • Ensure that the National Integrated Strategy to Combat Wildlife Trafficking (NISCWT) be urgently submitted to National Cabinet for approval, and
  • Categorise abalone poaching as a serious crime, in line with rhino poaching.

6 arrested for illegal abalone possessions. Read more here.

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