/ 1 September 2008

Govt steps up fight against marine poachers

Minister of Environmental Affairs and Tourism Marthinus van Schalkwyk says his department is planning ”further steps” to stem the rampant poaching of marine resources, especially perlemoen, along South Africa’s almost 3 000km-long coastline.

Briefing the media at Parliament on Monday, he said these steps will include more anti-poaching patrols and better equipment, but was reluctant to spell out exact details for fear of tipping off the crime syndicates involved in the lucrative illegal trade.

Last week, it was reported that about 2 000 tons of poached wild South African perlemoen, with a market value of R1,2-billion, was smuggled out of the country during 2007 and landed in Hong Kong.

Van Schalkwyk told journalists that while he feels his department is doing a good job curbing poaching, ultimately it is a safety and security issue.

”We are taking further steps, and I don’t want to make all those announcements now because we are dealing with organised crime and crime syndicates, but we are increasing the fisheries patrol officers, [and] we are looking at modernising equipment on the vessels to put our people in a better position to deal with it [poaching].”

Van Schalkwyk also announced that the Marine Living Resources Fund — which finances the operations of his department’s Marine and Coastal Management (MCM) programme — is back in the black.

This follows several years of qualified audit reports. Last Friday, the fund released its first-ever unqualified annual report.

”We have now put the fund on a firm footing,” Van Schalkwyk said. Among other things, it now has an accumulated surplus of R29-million, compared with a deficit of more than R65-million in the 2005/06 financial year.

Among other things, MCM is responsible for ”protecting the integrity of South Africa’s marine and coastal ecosystems”.

Environmental affairs Deputy Director General Monde Mayekiso said the department is seeking to strengthen links between itself and the Navy to help stop poaching.

Speaking to the South African Press Association after the briefing, he said MCM has 200 officers, three inshore patrol boats, one speed boat and seven ski-boats — three of which are currently out of the water for repairs — and an operating budget of R100-million.

With these resources, it is expected to patrol an area stretching from Port Edward at the top of the Eastern Cape to well north of Cape Town up the West Coast.

Asked when his department is going to adopt an ”iron fist” approach towards poachers, who seemingly operate with near impunity, he said it is just not possible to cover every section of the long coastline it is tasked to manage.

It focuses on certain areas, and within these it is ”getting the results we want”.

However, the department is looking at using an aircraft to help patrol the coast.

”We want to use more technology … in the near future we will sign a contract for a fixed-wing aircraft,” he said.

According to last Friday’s report, a total of 131 ”top wanted” poaching suspects were monitored, and 24 arrested, during the 2007/08 financial year.

Further, nine boats and 24 vehicles were confiscated.

On dealing with the big crime syndicates behind the poaching, the report states three Chinese, one Mexican and two South Africans were arrested.

The harvesting of wild perlemoen in South Africa was banned earlier this year. — Sapa