Abalone poaching at epidemic levels

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Over the past 18 years, poachers have stripped South African coastal waters of at least 96 million individual abalone.

Efforts to curb the illegal trade have roundly failed. Once abundant, the population of South African abalone Haliotis midae is declining at unprecedented levels. On average two thousand tonnes of abalone are bagged annually by poachers – 20 times the legal take – in an illicit industry estimated to be worth at least US$60-million a year.

These are some of the shocking revelations contained in a new report, Empty Shells: An assessment of abalone poaching and trade from southern Africa, published by TRAFFIC, the international wildlife trade monitoring network. The report is accompanied by a documentary that delves deep into the illegal abalone trade and its wider social context.

TRAFFIC is calling for stricter trade controls on South African abalone and a listing of the species on CITES, the Convention governing trade in endangered, threatened, and at-risk species.

Driven by sophisticated transnational criminal networks and local gangs, the illegal abalone trade is fuelled by deeply entrenched socio-economic disparities in Western Cape, bitterly contested fishing quotas, drugs, and gang violence.

Despite the very real threat that Haliotis midae could go extinct if poaching levels continue unabated, it is not currently listed on CITES and beyond South Africa the trade in Haliotis midae remains unregulated. That lack of regulation means once abalone shipments have been smuggled out of South Africa to neighbouring countries, they can easily be laundered without fear of law enforcement action.

World imports of Haliotis midae outweigh legal production levels in southern Africa with the total mass of imports of H. midae from 2000–2016 being 55,863 tonnes, while only 18,905 tonnes was legally produced over the same period. H. midae illegally harvested between 2000 and 2016 is estimated to total 36,958 tonnes, representing an average of 2,174 tonnes per annum and equating to a total of over 96 million individual abalone poached since 2000.

Estimated traded volumes of illegally harvested H. midae have steadily grown since 2008. In 2016, the estimated mass of illegally harvested abalone reached 3,224 tonnes, contributing 64% of the total imports for that year. Based on the average mass of individual abalone in each year provided by the Department of Agriculture, Forestry and Fisheries (DAFF), this equates to over 9.5 million molluscs poached in 2016—the highest annual figure for the 2000–2016 period.

Rampant illegal harvesting of abalone has resulted in the loss of a valuable commodity worth approximately R628 million a year.

In addition, an analysis of trade routes suggests up to 43% of illegally harvested abalone was traded through non-abalone-producing sub-Saharan African countries to Hong Kong between 2000 and 2016.

In-transit and market states do not have legal provisions requiring traders to demonstrate abalone products provenance in legal fisheries or aquaculture operations.

The increase in trade of dried South African abalone combined with the high value of the product and the presence of organised crime syndicates suggest interventions and collaboration at an international level are required to address the trade in illegally harvested abalone.

Local initiatives required to stem abalone poaching include increased multi-agency collaboration between government departments to encourage solutions addressing the combined effects of social, political, and economic conditions surrounding the illegal fishery.



International trade regulation in the form of a CITES Appendix listing is highly recommended. As most illegally harvested abalone is traded in dried form, usually by air to Hong Kong, a focused and collaborative effort is required to ensure the effective administering and implementation of the CITES documentation.
“Because of the involvement of organised crime, the apparent links to gangs in Cape Town, the links between the trade in abalone and the trade in drugs, there are also clear negative socio-economic impacts associated with it. You have whole cohorts of people along the coast involved and their work experience is only within an illicit economy,” said TRAFFIC programme co-ordinator Markus Bürgener.