Poaching, Smuggling Threaten Abalone Colonies in South Africa

Leon Marshall
for National Geographic News
April 3, 2002
South Africa's law-enforcement authorities are engaged in an armed
battle to save the country's abalone stocks from extinction at the hands
of poachers and international smuggling syndicates.

The giant sea
snail is prized by gourmets, particularly in Asia, as a delicacy reputed
to have aphrodisiac properties. The animal is known for its ability to
clamp itself to rocks under its large, flat, ear-shaped shell. The inner
iridescent layer of its shell is itself sought after as material for
beads and other ornaments.

South Africa's abalone war is pitting police, soldiers, and environmental officials against gun-toting gangsters involved in an extremely lucrative smuggling trade, especially to East Asia.

Tons of abalone have been confiscated, scores of people arrested, and large amounts of property seized in a joint anti-poaching initiative called Operation Neptune. The initiative was established last year between South Africa's Department of Environmental Affairs and Tourism (DEAT), the police, and the national defense force.

Still the plunder continues.

"The extraordinary high value of abalone and the involvement of organized crime syndicates have resulted in poachers resorting to more desperate and violent measures," said Horst Kleinschmidt, the deputy director-general of DEAT.

Gangsters and Gun Battles

Poaching is most intense along a rugged coastline straddling the confluence of the Indian and the Atlantic Oceans at the southern tip of Africa and along a 100-mile (160-kilometer) stretch of South Africa's Western Cape coast.

The new breed of gangster poachers has become so brazen, and state law enforcement agencies so stretched, that the country's biggest sea products company, Irvin & Johnson, has hired a private security firm to defend its abalone farms against raids.

Some of the security firm's operatives are former special-force soldiers who fought in the country's border wars during the apartheid era. They now patrol the coastal farms and apprehend poachers who have regularly been cutting perimeter fences and causing damage to the abalone stocks being propagated along the shore, and also by trampling over these to get to the wild abalone among the rocks farther out in the ocean.

Abalone farming is seen as one way of diminishing the crisis, as it could provide a regular supply for the heavy demand. However, the farms were started up only recently, and it takes about seven years for the abalone to reach a size where they may be harvested.

Meanwhile, the entry into abalone smuggling of crime syndicates, including Chinese triads, has resulted in shootouts between police and gangsters in crowded South African city streets, sending shoppers fleeing or diving for cover.

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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