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Poaching for Abalone, Africa’s ‘White Gold,' Reaches Fever Pitch

A booming illegal trade in abalone—the world’s most valuable shellfish—is fueling a social and environmental crisis in South Africa.

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Rampant poaching of wild abalone, whose fleshy snails are considered a delicacy in China and elsewhere, could drive the shellfish to extinction in South Africa within a decade.


It’s no man’s dream to be an abalone poacher, said Angelo Josephs, as we sat inside his tiny township shack perched on the mountainside above Hout Bay, a suburb of Cape Town. His wife made tea while their three kids played with their dogs on the dusty floor.

“Sometimes the weather is rough, but we know the cops won’t be on the water,” Josephs said. “So we’re going to take the chance. It’s 50-50. When you say, ‘Goodbye baby,’ that’s maybe the last goodbye.” He pointed toward the cold turquoise waters of the Atlantic visible beyond a peak called the Sentinel. “Just back here we’ve lost a lot of brothers, friends, nephews, uncles, daddies. In my lifetime I can say I know more than 200 lost to the sea. But a man’s gotta do what a man’s gotta do—a kid’s gotta eat. A hungry child can’t learn in school.”

Abalone are shellfish found in kelp forests in ocean waters along most continents and around the southern coast of South Africa. The large mollusks play an essential “engineering” role by grazing on plants and keeping kelp forests, which support many other species, in good condition. Dubbed “white gold” after the pearly underflesh of the snails, they’re relished in restaurants in China and elsewhere in Asia. Demand has soared, fueling a multibillion dollar global export industry—and a booming illegal trade from South Africa. Of the 56 global species, five are found in South Africa, and one of these, Haliotis midae, is regarded as among the tastiest.

Since 2001 an estimated 75 million abalone—40,000 tons—have been plucked from South African waters, about 10 times the legal quota. As a result the Department of Agriculture, Forestry and Fisheries, which sets annual quotas, says that “only an appreciable reduction in removals can prevent a complete collapse [in the wild] within about a decade.”

According to Markus Bergener, of the Southern Africa branch of TRAFFIC, a nonprofit that monitors illicit wildlife trades around the world, the total legal wild abalone harvest in South Africa in 2015 was 105 tons. “Our estimates for poaching for the same year was 3,477 tons,” he says.

In November 2016 two abalone kingpins, Akthar Naeem Cassim and Ernest Chen, were arrested near Beaufort West, in the Western Cape, with two tons of dried abalone in a truck. Last month, on January 20, four smugglers were found guilty of shipping $1.5 million worth of abalone to Hong Kong. And just last week two seizures of abalone estimated to be worth $2.8 million were made in the Cape Town area.

Despite these successes, according to Josephs much illegal abalone goes undetected because some local police officers are corrupt, paid off by the criminal syndicates to turn a blind eye. Josephs was too afraid to say more. “As soon as you start exposing the cops and do the right thing, they’re going to come after you,” he said. “When you start talking about their corruption, then you’re in danger because you’re impacting their pockets.”

About two years ago, Josephs said, he decided to quit poaching abalone out of belief that the current rate of harvesting was unsustainable and that if he didn’t look for other options, he’d find himself and his family without a livelihood when stocks collapsed.

As we spoke, one of his kids dashed between us and leaped onto the couch, followed by the dog. Josephs shooed them both away. “We can’t go on like this,” he said emphatically. “We can’t have people dying to feed their family.”

ABALONE GRAVEYARD

“The poachers have got so brazen, they dive in broad daylight,” said Donovan van der Heyden, as we strolled along a wind-raked beach in a marine protected area near Hout Bay, abalone shells crunching underfoot. “It’s really chaotic. These guys earn money like it’s crazy, easy money—it’s flashy cars and motorbikes and girls and drugs.”

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Hundreds of abalone shells carpet a shallow pool near Hout Bay, Cape Town, discarded after poachers shucked out the snails living inside them.


Van der Heyden, also a former poacher, stooped to pick up an iridescent, ear-shaped shell about the size of his hand. “This one was probably 25 years old,” he said. He went on to paint a picture of how this abalone graveyard must have come to be: One night a group of divers swam into the kelp forest and pried the barnacle-coated abalone off the rocks as they fed on the kelp fronds swaying in the swells. The poachers shucked out the snails with screwdrivers, filled their bags with the valuable flesh, and dropped the empty shells into the sea. In time they washed up on the beach.

Van der Heyden explained how he stumbled into the dark world of abalone poaching. It was changes put in place during the early 1990s by South Africa’s post-apartheid government that pushed small-scale abalone fishermen like him into poaching. The government redistributed many of the yearly quotas from white-owned companies to previously disadavantaged black-owned companies, and the new fisheries policies—which applied to the commercial, recreational, and subsistence fishing sectors—didn’t include small-scale traditional and artisanal fishermen who had been diving and selling their catch for generations.

Van der Heyden’s community believed that fishing was a traditional right, and they sought collective access and management of the resource rather than limited individual quotas. When that didn’t happen, many either turned to poaching or stopped diving for abalone.

During the early 2000s demand for abalone in Hong Kong exploded, and in 2007 the government, fearing that wild populations had crashed from over-harvesting, drastically reduced the allowable catch, from 800 tons a year to 80. That led to even more poaching.

Van der Heyden told me he gave up abalone poaching about 12 years ago because, he said, he wanted to “lead by example” and do what he could to help fight for his community’s access to the fisheries. He wanted to be part of a solution that would ensure the survival of both the abalone and the traditional fishermen.

But according to van der Heyden, it’s worse than ever now. In many fishing communities “the criminal syndicates have gotten involved,” peddling drugs as currency—cheap methamphetamines and heroin from China—and luring impressionable kids from the poor coastal townships to dive illegally for abalone. “You won't easily find a lot of talk about the syndicates,” he said. “It’s a very sensitive subject, very dangerous.”

“THE PLAYER AND THE REFEREE”

Pierre De Villiers, who has a masters in fisheries science and is the coastal program manager for CapeNature, the local government board responsible for biodiversity conservation in the Western Cape, echoes van der Heyden. As we took our places in a café in Hermanus, an attractive seaside town about 80 miles east of Hout Bay, he told me in a low voice that a colleague had recently disappeared to a safe house in the mountains behind town after being told by an informant that a local abalone syndicate had placed a hit on him.

According to De Villiers, multinational criminal syndicates not only pay off divers, carriers, and police but also government officials to ease the path of abalone from South African kelp beds to Asian markets. “There’s serious corruption,” he said. The syndicates “have critical people in law enforcement all the way up.” He didn’t want to be more specific out of fear for his safety.

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Poachers often use a screwdriver to pry out an abalone's flesh—dubbed "white gold" because of its high value.


When asked about corruption in its Western Cape branch, the South African Police’s media representative responded that “corruption by SAPS members are very high on our priority list and every endeavour is made to apprehend and discharge corrupt police officials.” National Geographic also reached out to the Department of Agriculture, Forestry, and Fisheries but had received no response by the time of publication.

In De Villiers’s view it doesn’t make sense for the fisheries department to “be both the player and the referee,” as it is now, responsible for managing quotas and food security for fishermen with one hand and enforcing policing the harvesting of abalone with the other. “This inevitably places officials under huge pressure and can lead to a conflict of interest,” he said.

What would make more sense, he said, would be to divide responsibilities among different government agencies: one to issue quotas based on sound science, another to manage abalone conservation, and one—the country’s priority crime unit, known as the HAWKS—to focus on organized crime. But, he said, such a structural change would mean the government would have to find more money and resources for marine conservation and crime prevention.

If the illegal trade isn’t shut down soon, De Villiers said, South Africa’s wild abalone will become critically endangered. But if it’s shut down without a plan to help the thousands of local fishermen who would lose their livelihoods, that could lead to a “massive social problem” when these people “turn to other forms of crime to get by.”

TAKING THE PRESSURE OFF WILD ABALONE

The scent of sea salt hung in the air as Werner Piek walked with me alongside hundreds of blue troughs that line the shore in Hermanus, just down the road from where I’d met De Villiers.

Piek is the marketing manager of Abagold, an abalone farm that at any one time has three million of the shellfish in various stages of growth, from microscopic plankton to pin-size spat to adults whose shells are bigger than a man’s hand. We stopped beside one trough, the water in it bubbling for aeration, and Piek drew out a plastic white cone with thousands of tiny blue shells clinging to its underside. “These are the abalone spat,” he said.

Abagold is the world’s largest land-based abalone farm outside China, employing some 400 people from the local community and exporting around 500 tons of “premium” abalone a year.

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Abalone clinging to the ocean floor, where they feed on kelp leaves, make an easy target for poachers, many of whom are beholden to criminal syndicates.


The abalone take seven years to reach maturity and are then harvested, processed, and packaged for export in different forms: dried, canned, and frozen. Some are shipped live. Readying abalone for market “is more complex than making wine,” Piek said. “When we sit with clients in Asia, they will pass around the dried abalone at the table, smell it, feel it, look at it. We get lyrical about wine, but they’re like that with abalone. They can see and know it’s coming from certain countries, factories, and species. It’s quite a skill and art.”

According to Piek, illegal producers don’t have the technique, the recipe, the training, or the facilities to offer abalone of consistently high quality. That, he said, is why “illegal abalone sells for a third of the price of farmed of legal abalone—it’s the lowest value product in the world on the abalone market.”

Abagold’s dried abalone, for example, sells for just over $200 per pound. Dried illegal abalone brings about $70, and the divers, who take on most of the risk, make no more than about $10 of that.

“Our poaching problem isn’t the fault of the Chinese,” Piek said. “It’s a result of our people not having jobs—they don’t have an alternative income. If somebody can earn a few dollars for a day’s work, they’ll do it.”

A possible solution to South Africa’s abalone poaching crisis, Piek suggests, is to follow Japan’s lead and seed wild abalone populations with abalone spat raised on farms. By doing this, Japanese producers sustainably harvest more than 5,000 tons of abalone a year.

If South Africa adopted this approach through partnerships with farms like Abagold, Piek said, the additional tax monies from this “blue economy” would amount to three times what the government now makes from confiscating and selling illegal abalone. It would also decriminalize more than 15,000 jobs and allow overstretched law enforcement to focus on the organized criminals.

“Somebody needs the vision to allow this to happen on a grand scale,” he said. It’s the best way to avoid decimation of the wild abalone and “the complete collapse of the communities and for crime to take over.”

When I asked Pierre de Villiers, of CapeNature, if farming abalone to take the pressure off wild populations and decriminalize the industry was a good idea, he equivocated. The problem with sprinkling farmed abalone into the ocean to boost wild stocks, he said, is that “you create a genetic bottleneck—a lack of diversity in the wild gene pool.” Wild abalone then risk collapse from disease or changes in the environment.

But, he conceded, “ranching is one solution—though we’d then need a plan to divide the coast up and dedicate specific areas for reseeding and ranching and other areas where wild abalone can thrive.”

He added: “We need to start looking at solutions no matter who or what you stand for. If we all work together, then maybe we can solve this problem.”

Read more stories about wildlife crime and exploitation on Wildlife Watch. Send tips, feedback, and story ideas to ngwildlife@natgeo.com.