Abalone price at all time high, sustainable options decreasing – investigative journalist

2018-10-10 16:19
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Investigative journalist Kimon de Greef says there is not enough abalone left to redistribute abalone income and stabilise the abalone crisis.

De Greef launched his new book, Poacher: Confessions from the abalone underworld, co-authored with a former poacher from the Cape Flats, on Tuesday after spending a year and a half researching.

Speaking to the Cape Town Press Club at Kelvin Grove in Newlands, De Greef said the options were running out in reaching a sustainable solution to the crisis.

About six million abalone are estimated to be illicitly exported from South African shores every year. The seafood delicacy, locally known as perlemoen, fetches more than R8 000 a plate in China, and poachers are paid R500 a kilogram in Hout Bay and other fishing settlements to pries the shellfish from the reefs.

Nearly 3 000 tonnes of abalone are smuggled out of South Africa every year, he said. Scientists have estimated that the illicit trade represents 20 to 30 times the amount of wild abalone that can be legally traded. The amount, referred to as the "total allowable catch", was set in 2013 by the Department of Agriculture, Forestry and Fisheries (DAFF) at 96 tonnes per year.

DAFF's operating budget is heavily dependent on income from the sale of confiscated abalone, he continued.

Money greasing hands

As a result, there was little incentive for DAFF to work towards solving the abalone crisis, and the scope of the crisis extends far beyond DAFF's jurisdiction, he said.

De Greef suggested that a "more holistic" approach be taken to deal with the issue. Abalone poaching was a "systemic issue" that had created a "massive parallel underground, multimillion-rand criminalised economy" where poor fishing communities, finding no other means of subsistence, get locked into the illicit trade of abalone.

READ: Hawks halt smuggling of R6m worth of abalone hidden in potato sacks

It was likely that "powerful kingpins coordinate the illicit trade from their cells" and that abalone poachers have under-the-table dealings with the police force.

"Abalone money has greased a lot of hands," De Greef said.

Earlier in October, Public Protector Busisiwe Mkhwebane was set to investigate alleged corruption within DAFF after a request from the chairperson of the Western Cape legislature's committee for economic development, Beverley Schäfer.

While abalone aquaculture may partly help to increase abalone stock in South Africa, De Greef was concerned that the capital-intensive nature of aquaculture would only benefit wealthy South Africans.

Communities risking their lives

It would also not solve the systemic problems that force poor fishing communities into risking their lives to poach abalone from the reefs where shark attacks are but one of many dangers they face.

Given that a poacher could, in one night's diving, make more than a teacher's monthly salary, many are willing to risk their lives. This was more common in the past however, as stock depletion has lessened the risk some divers would be willing to take.

Between the price of abalone being "at the highest it's ever been", the poaching man hours being "inconceivably high", the involvement of drug cartels and possible corrupt officials, the future of the abalone trade is uncertain, De Greef said. 

The same conclusion was reached by the international wildlife trade monitoring network Traffic, which in a report published in September found that poachers had taken at least 96 million units of South Africa's abalone in the past 17 years, leaving the future of the snail-like sea creature in danger of becoming extinct.

While abalone stocks are indeed plummeting and the threat of extinction, albeit in the long-term, is real, De Greef remained hopeful. For the investigative reporter, "abalone is much more resilient than people think".

*Note: Some factual errors represented in this article have been corrected at the request of the author of the book.

Read more on:    poaching

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