Abalone – South Africa’s source of ‘white gold’

For many South African localities, abalone is likened to a source of “white gold” that brings prosperity, but also promotes poaching activities.

A coastal village in South Africa is so heavily guarded that anyone who tries to break through the fence is monitored by security cameras and police quickly arrive to question them. The police explained that they must take such precautions to protect the precious underwater abalone farms.

Michael Dunsdon, production manager of Abagold Farms, inspects dried abalone.  Photo: SCMP

Michael Dunsdon, production manager of Abagold Farms, inspects dried abalone. Photo: SCMP

For such villages and towns across South Africa, abalone is creating thousands of jobs, income and prosperity for farmers. But at the same time, it also caused chaos, when attracting international criminal groups to come here to poach this kind of seafood like “white gold”.

South Africa exports more than 5,000 tons of abalone a year, mainly to Hong Kong and Asian markets. Nearly half of these abalone are poached by international criminal gangs, according to estimates by anti-wildlife organizations and the South African government.

Wildlife trafficking monitoring network Traffic estimates the poaching and smuggling of abalone in South Africa is worth $60-120 million a year. As a result of poaching, abalone is listed as endangered in the Red Book of the International Union for Conservation of Nature.

“The projections show that without significant reductions in both legal and illegal catches, abalone resources will be exhausted within 10 years,” said Albi Modise, head of communications at the Southern Environment Department. Phi, said.

Despite having a coastline of 2,850 km, South Africa does not have a Coast Guard. The navy of this country only performs anti-piracy and defense tasks, not ensuring security in the area 100 meters from the coast.

Western Cape Province waters in South Africa.  Photo: SCMP

Western Cape Province waters in South Africa. Photo: SCMP

The task of fighting abalone poaching in coastal towns is assigned to the national police. This force has about 136 divers and 82 boat operators, but they mainly carry out the work of finding drowning victims and preventing other types of crime.

Markus Burgener, a member of Traffic, said South African police detect 350-500 poaching of abalone each year. In 2019 alone, they confiscated more than $1.6 million in abalone, but this is only a small fraction. The same year, police said that two Chinese nationals were deported for illegally trading and transporting abalone.

However, the South African police are losing ground in the fight against poaching. As the market for abalone has grown, with exports averaging 8% per year from 2009 to 2016, this seafood has become a mainstay of the coastal economy, making it difficult to cope with the illegal trade. more difficult than ever.

South Africa has many favorable conditions for international crime syndicates to operate strongly. Unemployment in this country is increasing, especially among young people. Last year, South Africa’s unemployment rate was more than 32%, with 15 to 24 year olds reaching 59%.

“Criminal syndicates take advantage of this situation, realizing that South Africa has an almost endless source of labor for abalone poaching,” Burgener said. “It doesn’t matter how many people get caught and jailed. There will always be more people willing to do this because the risk is relatively low and the return is quite high.”

Pervasive corruption has also weakened South Africa’s national security and law enforcement agencies. Authorities last year released the results of an investigation that showed top intelligence officials at the National Security Agency were colluding with and covering up corrupt politicians, taking advantage of sexual projects. secret report to extract public funds.

The national police agency was also in chaos. Nearly 6,000 people, including 972 investigators, have left the force as of March 31, 2022, amid an increase in crime. More than 5,200 cases of police crimes were recorded during the year.

“There is increasing evidence that a number of high-ranking gang members have made their way into the Western Cape police department,” said Andricus Van Der Westhuizen, a lawmaker for the Western Cape, southwestern coastal province of South Africa. .

A South African Police Force spokesman did not respond to a request for comment. Burgener says police officers’ personal relationships with the community also turn a blind eye to poaching.

“They may have friends or family involved in the poaching gangs and even if they’re not bribed, they still benefit in some way,” he said.

For the innocent, hunting down abalone hunters is not a priority in a country with an average homicide rate of 70 per day. According to Burgener, abalone poaching is considered a “mild crime”.

Farm with hundreds of cages for small to large abalone in Hermanus, South Africa.  Photo: SCMP

Farm with hundreds of cages for abalone farming in Hermanus, South Africa. Photo: SCMP

The complex coastal terrain and many small coves also make poachers more difficult to catch. Coastal residents also do not dare to report for fear. A 40-year-old restaurant manager in Hermanus said he had seen poachers many times but had never reported them to the police because “if you report the news, you will lose your life”.

This person said if the poachers were caught, he would have to testify in court and risk exposing his identity to a large-scale criminal network that could kill people for revenge.

The illegal abalone trade also threatens legitimate farms. HIK abalone farm is one of the major producers in South Africa. The company, based in Hermanus, produces 400 tons of abalone per year. Matthew Naylor, the manager, said the truck had been hijacked by gunmen.

“It’s only a matter of time, as natural abalone becomes less and less, our stock will be more targeted,” he said.

The company has to spend more money on security. They hire a patrol force 24/24, equipped with surveillance cameras everywhere. They avoid transporting goods at night, changing routes constantly to make it more difficult to attack.

“Business is not normal,” Naylor said. “Nobody knows what they’re going to do today, which trucks to load, who the driver is. This is what the whole industry is facing.”

The underground market also threatens the global abalone trade, especially with regard to food safety. Legitimate producers apply strict food hygiene procedures in abalone processing, but poachers do not.

Poached abalone is not farmed and processed hygienically, is not refrigerated, is instead stored in sacks hidden in the bushes, transported in pickup trucks and gathered in the backyards of the poachers’ homes. These factors threaten public health as well as potentially affect the reputation of aquaculture companies should a disease related to South African abalone arise.

“One of the things that scares me and everyone in the industry the most is that someone in Hong Kong gets sick from eating illegally harvested abalone. The entire South African abalone industry will suffer the consequences,” Werner said. Piek, marketing director of Abagold, a major abalone producer in Hermanus, says.

Workers in the abalone processing factory of Abagold farm, South Africa.  Photo: SCMP

Workers in the abalone processing factory of Abagold farm, South Africa. Photo: SCMP

More efforts are being made to provide better information to consumers in order to cut demand for poached abalone. Most South African farms have sustainable farming certificates printed on their products. Many restaurants and hotels require vendors to present this certificate to remove poached abalone.

WWF, the United Nations Wildlife Fund in Hong Kong, also provides guidelines for classifying farmed and wild-caught seafood to consumers, promoting sustainable product choices.

But it is not easy for consumers to understand the product’s origin when it has to go through many intermediate layers. The most obvious difference is the price. Legal abalone is much more expensive due to the cost of preservation, meaning consumers who prefer cheap prices still tend to choose the illegal variety, exposing them to health risks.

“There is still a lot of work to be done in Hong Kong and mainland China to make people more aware of the issue,” Piek said.

Hong Hanh (Theo SCMP)

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