/ 4 February 2009

SA ‘losing abalone war’

New research indicates that a record 3 000 tons of abalone was poached from South African waters and sold in Asia last year. And fingers are being pointed at the leaky convention on international trade in endangered species (Cites) permit system, which authorities struggle to enforce.

The research was conducted by Feike, an independent natural resources advisory firm based in Cape Town, and non-governmental pressure group Traffic.

Said Feike director Shaheen Moosa: ”The Environmental Affairs Department’s inability to implement Cites obligations is facilitating the sale of illegal abalone.”

The department could not confirm the research figures, but said it had recovered 170 247 units of poached abalone last year.

The poaching spike is clear in some areas, including the Overstrand coast, which has experienced a threefold increase in poaching since 2007, according to non-governmental organisation Seawatch.

The quotas allow 1 000 tons of farmed abalone and 125 tons of wild shellfish to be harvested.

Environmental activists were outraged last year when it emerged that environmental affairs officials had not endorsed a single Cites permit.

In 2007, to combat rampant poaching, environment minister Marthinus van Schalkwyk said that an endorsed Cites permit must accompany all abalone exports. But because of an inability to endorse at the country’s borders the strategy has failed. South Africa has asked countries to accept permits without endorsement, leading to further abuse.

Syndicates repeatedly use unendorsed permits, which are valid for six months, for illegal exports.

Abalone divers can earn anything up to R180 a kilogram, while syndicates make up to R3 000 a kilogram.

”We have confirmed reports of markets in south-east Asia selling 40 tons of dried South African abalone,” Moosa said. Dried abalone is about 10% of the weight of the fresh product, ”so we are talking of hundreds of tons in a couple of Beijing markets”.

The South African authorities implied that customs officials in the recipient countries had been corrupted, she said. ”But more realistically, poachers are using the unendorsed Cites permits as tools to facilitate poaching.”

Razeena Omar, acting deputy director general of marine and coastal management, said her department ”acknowledged challenges in this regard”, but these would largely be addressed by planned interventions.

Proposals included increasing the department’s capacity to endorse permits, finalisation of the national regulations on Cites and strengthening the permit-issuing process.

Omar said the department was aware of allegations that poachers abused unendorsed Cites permits, but had found no evidence of this.

She said abalone poaching was not out of control.

However, numerous incidents in the past year suggest otherwise. These include a R12-million bust last March; the arrest of 10 people last January in Gauteng for the possession of six tons of abalone, worth R10-million; and the arrest of 12 suspects in Pretoria last February.

Also in February two Chinese nationals and a South African man were arrested and abalone worth R7-million was confiscated from a house in Cape Town.

In December Western Cape police arrested eight suspects for the possession of abalone worth R7,5-million in Belhar, Caledon, Riviersonderend and Kuils River.