Abalone on the brink of extinction

Spotters for abalone poachers in the small tourist town of Hermanus on South Africa’s southernmost coast spot the police from afar and often mock them as they try to clamp down on the burgeoning illegal trade.

The whistles and hand signals come first. Then a troop of sunburnt men dressed in old T-shirts and ripped trousers walk nonchalantly from the sea rocks toward Inspector Eben Groenewald, the head of a special unit set up to fight abalone poaching in the region.

“Afternoon inspector—there are perlemoen (abalone) poachers down there inspector, you must go look,” one of the men says mockingly to Groenewald.

Groenewald searches the heavily laden sports bags that the men are carrying for signs of molluscs. The bags are filled with legally caught lobsters.
“Can’t we interest you in a drink inspector?” a man with a shaven head and two missing front teeth asks Groenewald.

Groenewald says the men cleared up their tracks in the nick of time.

“Those men were poaching perlemoen, but when they got the signal they probably buried it somewhere,” he said.

“It will be difficult to find where they stashed it, but I’ll call in our dog unit and they can try to smell it out.”

Abalone were once rife in shallow sub-tidal kelp pools on South Africa’s southern coast.

But years of uncontrolled commercial fishing and poachers, who currently earn between $65 and $85 a kilogram for frozen abalone and $120 a kilogram for the dried variety, have brought the species to the brink of extinction.

Abalone take seven years to reach sexual maturity, but most are pried off rocks with screwdrivers before they have had a chance to breed. Scientists say that South Africa’s abalone, which is eaten as a delicacy and used as an aphrodisiac in Asian countries, could be extinct in three to four years.

Restrictions on abalone harvesting were first set up in 1970, but in 1996 there was a major clampdown on the illegal abalone trade, which the government values at between R60 and R100-million (eight and $14-million) a year.

“There are at least 200 syndicates operating in the southern Cape coast,” Groenewald said.

“Most of them have around 30 members and are linked to international syndicates, like the Chinese triad gangs.

“In Gansbaai (a small fishing town east of Hermanus) more than half the residents in the town are involved in poaching.”

The trade is fraught with violence. In 2002 for example, a mob surrounded a local police station where two suspected poachers were being held and fired shots at the police. Various police officers have also been charged with aiding and abetting abalone poachers.

“They fight each other everywhere, even under water at sea,” Groenewald said.

“The syndicates often recruit children and pay them with drugs. Many pupils at the local schools drop out to become perlemoen poachers.”

The major route for the abalone trade is via Cape Town to Asian countries like China and Taiwan. The police established Operation Neptune in February 1999 when riots broke out between abalone gangs outside Hermanus. The operation has shown some success. Between January and October last year, 665 poachers were arrested. South Africa’s Marine and Coastal Management (MCM), a branch of

the environment ministry, had about 600 000 confiscated abalone in stock by the end of last year.

An environmental court established in Hermanus in 2002 is also imposing stiff penalties and is achieving better rates of conviction for abalone smugglers. Sapa-AFP

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