Poaching, Smuggling Threaten Abalone Colonies in South Africa

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DEAT, the national agency in charge of managing South Africa's fisheries, is overwhelmed.

"We are no longer able to address abalone poaching as a fisheries management problem," said Kleinschmidt. "Clearly the high number of confiscations and arrests that are recorded by Operation Neptune is not enough; we are simply not managing to keep the abalone in the water."

Poaching and Poverty

Poaching and other criminal activites associated with it are shredding the entire communities who are earning a living from abalone poaching—and living on the wrong side of the law.

Poaching has been going on for as long as authorities have tried to use a system of quotas to maintain stocks by limiting catches and protecting undersize abalone from exploitation before they reach reproductive age. But it used to happen on a limited and localized scale.

Now the problem is exacerbated by the crushing poverty suffered by traditional fishing communities and by spreading criminality. Abalone is increasingly poached not only for local use; good money gets paid for it by the syndicates and gangs in the illegal export trade. And, like the gangsters, local poachers have themselves taken to the use of guns and knives and other violent means of getting their way.

Poor fishermen in these communities argue that they are forced to poach because the state's fishing permit system continues to discriminate against them as black and mixed-race communities.

"The architects of the existing fishing policy have remained true to the masters of the apartheid regime," Michael Mboniso, chairman of the Township Fishing Organization, wrote recently in a letter to the local newspaper, The Cape Argus.

"Transformation, which is meant to spread wealth and enrichment to have-nots, is not happening, while the advantaged rich get double fishing rights. We have lost faith in the administrators of the department and have therefore developed our own survival skills to gain access to the ocean's fish," he said.

Kleinschmidt dismisses this argument. The department recently awarded 173 limited fishing rights worth a substantial sum of money to fishers from disadvantaged communities, he said. The process by which permits were awarded has been substantially reformed, he said, making the allocation of rights more just.

Poaching is not the only threat to the country's abalone stocks.

South Africa's abalone stock is facing an additional threat from an unexplained influx of west coast rock lobster. Juvenile abalone typically shelter under spiny sea urchins until their shells are large and hard enough to protect them from predators. The rock lobsters prey on sea urchins and have reduced sea urchin populations to the point that juvenile abalone are now quite vulnerable to predators. Scientists have been unable to identify the environmental factors that precipitated the invasion of rock lobster.

Kleinschmidt recently warned that as a last resort to save abalone from extinction, all fishing licenses for the species might have to be withdrawn.

He added: "We urgently need to turn the tide of public opinion against the people who are intent on destroying the abalone resource for the purpose of enriching themselves."

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