The South African National Defence Force (SANDF) has from the middle of January deployed to the Overstrand region of the Western Cape to deter illegal maritime activities, particularly abalone poaching, in conjunction with the South African Police Service (SAPS) and other roleplayers. Successes include nearly 30 arrests and the confiscation of half a million Rands’ worth of abalone.
The SANDF deployment, as part of the border safeguarding Operation Corona, involves South African Army, SA Air Force, SA Navy and SA Military Health Service personnel as well as armoured personnel carriers, naval vessels and an Oryx helicopter from Air Force Base Ysterplaat-based 22 Squadron. The helicopter has been used to insert personnel on the ground when required.
According to Colonel Keith Raven Aarons, the Officer Commanding Joint Tactical Headquarters Western Cape, the SANDF is working with the South African Police Service, Department of Environment, Forestry and Fisheries (DEFF), Cape Nature and Overstrand law enforcement as directed by the Joint Force Employment Guidelines from the Chief of Joint Operations.
The main objective of the deployment is maritime safeguarding and preventing the illegal harvesting of abalone. “We will continue to dominate the area with deployments and prevent boats and divers from conducting illegal activities,” Aarons told defenceWeb.
Several successes have already been recorded for the first two weeks of the current deployment, including 28 arrests, the issuing of 16 traffic fines worth R39 000, the confiscation of 182 shelled and two shucked abalone worth R585 000, the seizure of a small quantity of dagga and the confiscation of diving and electronic/communications equipment worth R124 700.
Visible patrols are being conducted on land with armoured personnel carriers whilst Navy patrol vessels prevent local boats from carrying out illegal activities at sea. In the past, the SANDF used offshore patrol vessels and frigates to patrol South Africa’s Exclusive Economic Zone (EEZ), but now there is a land-based reaction force, Aarons explained.
In the August 2018 deployment, the Navy deployed the offshore patrol vessel SAS Makhanda and in June/July 2019, the SANDF deployed the SAS Protea with the Maritime Reaction Squadron to the Overstrand region, supported by the SAPS and DEFF. During October/November 2018, Aarons said that deployment stopped any major poaching activities, drastically reducing the illegal harvesting of abalone.
Aarons said the Overstrand is the focus of operations as it is the main area where illegal resources, particularly abalone, are being illegally harvested by organised criminal networks. This causes a loss of income to the state as well as an increase in other crimes as abalone is often paid for with drugs.
Although nearly 30 people have been arrested in the January deployment, Aarons said “our main objective is not to arrest people. Our main objective is to keep the marine resource in the water. If people do poach we will obviously support the DEFF and SAPS to affect an arrest.”
It has been estimated that around one ton of abalone is harvested illegally on any given day, with abalone fetching prices of up to R1 700 per kilogram on the black market. Poaching is responsible for the loss of an estimated R628 million a year, if it was harvested as a legal commodity.
In October 2019, Western Cape police ombud Johan Brand said the police were often overwhelmed by abalone and rock lobster poachers, with hundreds of poachers in the water on one occasion in Gansbaai.