Black gold: A fresh approach needed to tackle SA's illegal abalone trade

Eyewitness News takes a look at what can be done to deal with abalone poaching, which costs the fiscus hundreds of millions of rands every year.

FILE: Abalone seized at a processing facility in Goodwood. Picture: Twitter/@SAPoliceService

CAPE TOWN - Western Cape authorities are calling for a rethink on how to tackle the illegal abalone trade, saying piecemeal busts alone will not break the back of criminal syndicates.

The nation loses hundreds of millions of rands every year as a result of the illegal harvesting of and trade in abalone.

The Western Cape standing committee for agriculture, environmental affairs and development planning estimates that the number of people involved in the illegal abalone industry is four to five times more than those in the commercial abalone farms.

READ: Shell games: Unravelling the complex web around abalone poaching

Last September, the committee visited the Overstrand region, a known hotspot for poaching activities.

“The problem is that wild stocks of abalone have been decimated along our coastline, which is now forcing poachers to become more aggressive and even enter into traditional marine reserves,” said committee chairperson Andricus van der Westhuizen.

South Africa's Environmental Fisheries and Forestry Department and law enforcement agencies agree that a collective approach achieves better results in trying to break the back of illegal abalone harvesting in the country.

The national Department of Fisheries alone confiscated over 26 tonnes of abalone, and made 149 arrests in the last financial year, but Markus Burgener from international conservation organisation Traffic said it was not even scratching the surface.

"It has been going on for more than 20 years, we have not stopped it. If anything, it has got worse in the last five years," said Burgener.

READ: Perlemoen plea deal: 6 abalone poaching syndicate members cut deals with State

Senior researcher at UCT's Centre of Criminology Simon Howell agreed.

"I would say it's a success in the individual instances of those busts and that they have managed to get convictions, but it is also a drop in the ocean in the sense that there's a lot more out there,” said Howell.

'ADMINISTRATIVE MESS'

The fact that abalone poaching goes hand in hand with other forms of crimes exacerbates the problem.

“A lot of operations are hamstrung by regulations because abalone poaching crosses over so many governmental domains,” said Howell.

“For instance, if you look in the news, most of the busts occur either when you're drying, storing or diving for it. But between those jurisdictions, there's a lot of administrative mess.

“Ultimately I think the biggest problem is administration and the working and cooperation of government departments,” said Howell.

Whilst authorities agree that co-ordinated efforts have yielded better results, in practice that can be difficult to achieve and government's limited resources appear to be no match for the complex criminal syndicates that strip the nation's natural resources under cover of darkness.

So what are the measures that can be put in place to try to meaningfully deal a blow to abalone poaching, if any?

Van der Westhuizen said the country would have to take a new direction as busts alone were not having the desired result.

“I believe the solution would be to look at the marketing of abalone, how all abalone eventually reaches the consumer. And if we can regulate the sale of abalone in order to ensure it is only sold through recognised channels, it could be one way of first, making the police's job easier and secondly, to ensure that all abalone we provide is safe for human consumption.

“If we could control the selling or marketing of abalone so that this product is worthless in the hands of people who can't prove how they got hold of the product, then there would be no market for illegal abalone and therefore it won't become profitable and that would discourage illegal abalone taken from the sea,” said Van der Westhuizen

Poachers themselves are the bottom of the crime food chain and their activities are dangerous.

When they get caught in the act, they are often simply let off with a fine and authorities struggle to get to the people actually instructing them and paying them.

“Unfortunately, we need to decriminalise the taking of abalone from the sea, we are losing this battle,” said Van der Westhuizen. “It is just too easy for people to take abalone from the sea currently. The SAPS and environmental authorities don't have the resources in order to effectively police this. The ideal would be to have a marine guard, but with the demands currently placed on the South African fiscus, I cannot foresee that the law enforcement side would be ramped up sufficiently.”

ABALONE RANCHING

Van der Westhuizen said offering a social alternative was key and his committee was quite positive about the possibility of what's called abalone ranching and getting coastal communities involved.

“The commercial abalone growers have really perfected the process of fertilising small abalone and reproducing abalone in much bigger numbers than what they can currently grow themselves.

“So they are willing to provide the small abalone larvae for restocking abalone in the wild. What we would like to see is some abalone ranches along our coast where abalone is restocked into the sea and that those coastal communities then take care and take ownership of the abalone in their particular areas.

“We believe the abalone market is much higher than what is currently provided, so we see a huge opportunity for future economic growth and job creation for people who are willing to partake in this."

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