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Abalone clinging to the ocean floor, where they feed on kelp leaves, make an easy target for poachers, many of whom are beholden to criminal syndicates. Efforts to curb the illegal trade have roundly failed. Around 75 million abalone have been illegally fished from the waters of South Africa since 2001, 10 times more than the legal quota. This paper explores why the illicit abalone trade took off so dramatically in the 1990s and chronicles the attempts of various enforcement agencies to contain it. The illegal trade exploded in the years after apartheid, when international sanctions against South Africa were lifted. In time they washed up on the beach. The abalone take seven years to reach maturity and are then harvested, processed, and packaged for export in different forms: dried, canned, and frozen. If we all work together, then maybe we can solve this problem.”, Poaching for Abalone, Africa’s ‘White Gold,' Reaches Fever Pitch, https://www.nationalgeographic.com/news/2017/02/wildlife-watch-abalone-poaching-south-africa.html. As a result the Department of Agriculture, Forestry and Fisheries, which sets annual quotas, says that “only an appreciable reduction in removals can prevent a complete collapse [in the wild] within about a decade.”. We stopped beside one trough, the water in it bubbling for aeration, and Piek drew out a plastic white cone with thousands of tiny blue shells clinging to its underside. First steps to tackling South Africa's abalone poaching Menu Close Some are shipped live. JOHANNESBURG — Poachers profiting off illegal abalone fishing are fueling a wave of violence in South Africa. And just last week two seizures of abalone estimated to be worth $2.8 million were made in the Cape Town area. What Are The Harmful Effects Of Littering. “It’s really chaotic. At Abagold in South Africa, which is the largest abalone farm located on land and outside of China, dried abalone meat sells for $200 per pound, whereas illegal abalone meat sells for around $70 per pound. As part of industry reforms, the government redistributed annual abalone quotes among fishing companies. According to De Villiers, multinational criminal syndicates not only pay off divers, carriers, and police but also government officials to ease the path of abalone from South African kelp beds to Asian markets. Abalone-diving has been a recreational activity for many years, but stocks are severely threatened by illegal commercial harvesting. These wildlife crimes affect elephants and rhinos among others, but we’re not always reminded about the lesser-known wildlife like perlemoen (or abalone). 2020 National Geographic Partners, LLC. Perlemoen poaching is a serious problem on the Cape coast and around South Africa — we’ve had some cases at the Cape of Good Hope and not too long ago, arrests were made in Hout Bay. While abalone can be found in other countries, the South African species is the most sourced in the illegal market. In fact, commercially farmed abalone meat is worth significantly more than illegally poached abalone. Abalone poaching is highly illegal, carrying severe penalties. If South Africa adopted this approach through partnerships with farms like Abagold, Piek said, the additional tax monies from this “blue economy” would amount to three times what the government now makes from confiscating and selling illegal abalone. While there are 56 species of abalone in the world, five of these are found in South Africa. In fact, commercially farmed abalone meat is worth significantly more than illegally poached abalone. Additionally, these criminal organizations recruit young individuals who are living in conditions of poverty and often pay in drugs, creating an addiction that can only be fulfilled by harvesting more abalone. Dubbed “white gold” after the pearly underflesh of the snails, they’re relished in restaurants in China and elsewhere in Asia. © 1996-2015 National Geographic Society, © 2015- A booming illegal trade in abalone—the world’s most valuable shellfish—is fueling a social and environmental crisis in South Africa. During the early 2000s demand for abalone in Hong Kong exploded, and in 2007 the government, fearing that wild populations had crashed from over-harvesting, drastically reduced the allowable catch, from 800 tons a year to 80. The government redistributed many of the yearly quotas from white-owned companies to previously disadavantaged black-owned companies, and the new fisheries policies—which applied to the commercial, recreational, and subsistence fishing sectors—didn’t include small-scale traditional and artisanal fishermen who had been diving and selling their catch for generations. Josephs was too afraid to say more. Van der Heyden explained how he stumbled into the dark world of abalone poaching. According to Markus Bergener, of the Southern Africa branch of TRAFFIC, a nonprofit that monitors illicit wildlife trades around the world, the total legal wild abalone harvest in South Africa in 2015 was 105 tons. “When you start talking about their corruption, then you’re in danger because you’re impacting their pockets.”. The absence of abalone in the marine ecosystem would be detrimental to the habitat. “This inevitably places officials under huge pressure and can lead to a conflict of interest,” he said. While there are 56 species of abalone in the world, five of these are found in South Africa. While abalone can be found in other countries, the South African species is the most sourced in the illegal market. Breaking the cycle of illegal abalone poaching in South Africa is going to be tough, but not impossible. “Our estimates for poaching for the same year was 3,477 tons,” he says. Then in 2007, the government reacted to drastically reduced wild abalone population numbers by decreasing the annual limit from 800 tons to 80 tons. Why? But according to van der Heyden, it’s worse than ever now. This illegal trade is worth approximately $440 million annually. Last month, on January 20, four smugglers were found guilty of shipping $1.5 million worth of abalone to Hong Kong. The excessive poaching of abalone has colossal ecological, social, economic and political consequences for the country. “It’s a result of our people not having jobs—they don’t have an alternative income. As a result of this binge of illegal harvesting, South Africa's stock of wild perlemoen today stands on the brink of extinction. ... abalone, or cycads (ancient ... [illegal hunting of rhino] is just like when you are hunting for bushmeat. If the illegal trade isn’t shut down soon, De Villiers said, South Africa’s wild abalone will become critically endangered. Pierre De Villiers, who has a masters in fisheries science and is the coastal program manager for CapeNature, the local government board responsible for biodiversity conservation in the Western Cape, echoes van der Heyden. Piek is the marketing manager of Abagold, an abalone farm that at any one time has three million of the shellfish in various stages of growth, from microscopic plankton to pin-size spat to adults whose shells are bigger than a man’s hand. It has a large, soft body, known as a foot, that is anchored to the shell by the columellar muscle. These species are ecologically important and their algae grazing behavior cleans the area, allowing for colonization and population growth of other species. The most desired abalone species is the Haliotis midae, which is the largest of its kind and found only along the coasts of South Africa. When I asked Pierre de Villiers, of CapeNature, if farming abalone to take the pressure off wild populations and decriminalize the industry was a good idea, he equivocated. Abalone-diving has been a recreational activity for many years, but stocks are currently being threatened by illegal commercial harvesting. This species is easily recognized by the row of open holes, which are respiratory pores, located along its outer edge. Today, illegal abalone poaching has been taken over by criminal organizations. “As soon as you start exposing the cops and do the right thing, they’re going to come after you,” he said. It’s quite a skill and art.”, According to Piek, illegal producers don’t have the technique, the recipe, the training, or the facilities to offer abalone of consistently high quality. The report, South Africa's Illicit Abalone Trade: An Updated Overview And Knowledge Gap Analysis, produced by TRAFFIC, the wildlife trade monitoring network, and funded by the United States Agency for International Development (USAID) researched 25 years of legal and illegal abalone fisheries and the factors leading to the current crisis. However, the level of desperation in Western Cape fishing communities is high. Why? Abagold is the world’s largest land-based abalone farm outside China, employing some 400 people from the local community and exporting around 500 tons of “premium” abalone a year. As we took our places in a café in Hermanus, an attractive seaside town about 80 miles east of Hout Bay, he told me in a low voice that a colleague had recently disappeared to a safe house in the mountains behind town after being told by an informant that a local abalone syndicate had placed a hit on him. “These are the abalone spat,” he said. A possible solution to South Africa’s abalone poaching crisis, Piek suggests, is to follow Japan’s lead and seed wild abalone populations with abalone spat raised on farms. But, he said, such a structural change would mean the government would have to find more money and resources for marine conservation and crime prevention. It would also decriminalize more than 15,000 jobs and allow overstretched law enforcement to focus on the organized criminals. 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