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Shellfish Poaching Fuels Illicit Economy in South Africa

The four occupants of the skiff waved merrily as they bounced their way back to shore. Some of the tourists on board our shark cage diving boat waved back, but the skipper stared fixedly ahead. “Abalone poachers,” he muttered.

The sight of such small vessels riding the swells in Walker Bay off Africa’s southernmost point of Cape Agulhas is apparently not unusual. The poachers ply their trade quite openly, without any apparent concern about being apprehended, I was later told by some residents.

We were cruising around a cove on the southern lip of the bigger bay which the locals refer to as Shark Bay because of the large number of sharks, including great whites, that congregate there throughout the year. It is what makes shark-cage diving one of the biggest attractions of the inlet’s fishing village of Gansbaai, which translates into Goose Bay.

The small bay includes Dyer Island, where conservationists are fighting hard to save a breeding colony of the endangered African penguin. The rocky shallows around the island and an adjoining outcrop known as Geyser Rock that is home to a large seal colony, are the site of some of the most brazen abalone poaching.

It is not the only area where this is happening. Serious concerns have for some years now been raised over the plundering of the sea floor along South Africa’s entire southwestern coast, with conservationists increasingly fearing that stocks of the coveted shellfish, popularly known in the country as perlemoen, could soon be depleted. The danger is aggravated by the indiscriminate harvesting of small abalone, which take 13 years before they are grown enough to spawn the next generation.

The authorities’ handling of the situation has become such a serious bone of contention that they are now facing a court challenge by a group of abalone fishermen belonging to the official South African Abalone Industry Association.

The main complaint of these small operators is about the way quotas have been allocated in favor of big companies. Their spokesman, Scott Russel, have been quoted as saying that poaching was causing abalone stocks to collapse in some of the zones allocated to the big operators. And now these big rights holders were being rewarded for the mismanagement of their zones by allowing them to fish in other, more stable zones.

In addition, the small operators have sought, and been granted, an urgent interdict to stop the dozens of people and companies fishing in the zones allocated to them. These include the Table Bay area round Robben Island, the former prison island (and now a World Heritage Site) where Nelson Mandela and other political prisoners were incarcerated for many years.

In terms of the interim interdict, the authorities must now see that those accused of intruding must keep out of the small operators’ areas. The court still needs to hear further evidence at a later date before deciding whether to make the interdict permanent.

But in a bizarre twist, the small operators in their main action are also accusing South Africa’s national minister of agriculture, forestry and fisheries, Tina Joemat-Pettersson, and her department of “secretly” selling more than R10 million (about U.S.$1.2 million) worth of illegally poached abalone that had been confiscated.

The department is said to annually sell much bigger quantities of confiscated abalone, using the proceeds to fund its operations. Though done officially and openly, it is nonetheless controversial. Such sales have now reached the point of the department being accused of practically needing the illegal activity to secure its income.

The implication of the small operators’ court action is that there is something smelly about the alleged “secret” auctions. According to reports, Russel says in his affidavits to the Western Cape High Court that these auctions are happening without prior public notice and without scrutiny of a certified independent forensic firm.

The court action has come in the face of Minister Joemat-Pettersson declaring herself and her department to be fully committed to fighting the shellfish-stripping scourge, which she has compared to South Africa’s deeply worrying rhino-poaching blight.

She last year launched five speed boats to go after the abalone poachers. The vessels are manned by military veterans and are able to get to the rocky shallows around islands and along the inshore areas where the poachers operate.

The large quantities of abalone seized, and subsequently auctioned, indicate that the security operatives are having successes. But much of this seems to be happening at the higher levels of the smuggling networks. Last year Chinese nationals found in possession of big abalone stashes they were intending to ship to the Far East  were sentenced to jail. Vehicles and even big boats have been seized in anti-poaching operations.

But conservationists and some residents of Gansbaai remain sceptical about what is happening at the lower levels. They point out that poaching is often carried on in broad daylight, as for example round Dyer Island in the cove they call Shark Bay. Some suspects, including three policemen, were arrested in Gansbaai last year. Still, some residents claim the illegal activity has practically become part of life in their village.

They prefer to speak anonymously, for fear of intimidation. They say the poacher gangs and their syndicates have become so ruthless that they do not merely threaten physical harm against those reporting them or publicly speaking out against them. They have taken to warning such people that they know where their children go to school or where their families go shopping.

The sinister methods of intimidation are by implication confirmed in the strategy adopted by one marine protection officer, who, in setting up a combined anti-poaching operation, has asked anglers to phone him, or better, send him an SMS on his mobile phone, with information about poaching. He would then relay the information to the operators, so ensuring that the identity of the whistleblowers remained protected.

But back in Gansbaai, some folk gave me another reason for what they consider to be a reluctance to act decisively against the poachers. They told me it was because of the extent to which the income from abalone poaching and smuggling was keeping the area’s shop tills ringing. It was big money that over the years had become part of the area’s economic lifeblood.

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