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The ecological, industrial and drug war behind the abalone on your dinner table

South African abalone is being driven to near-extinction by a clash between drugs, the environment and the fishing industry. How the fight over the most sought after delicacy in Asia embodies the developmental dilemma in post- apartheid South Africa.

By Crystal Chow. Reported from Johannesburg, Cape Town, and Hong Kong; originally published on Initium Media on 1 February 2017 under the title 你餐桌上的南非鮑魚,背後竟是一場毒品、生態與漁業的戰爭.  Translated by Morrie Yu and Kelvin Chan. The author was a participant in the Africa-China Reporting Project’s African Journalism Workshop at Wits Journalism in October 2016. 

Dried South African abalone in a shop in Wing Lok Street, Sheung Wan, Hong Kong. Photo: Crystal Chow/Initium Media

For its auspicious symbolism in traditional Chinese beliefs, rich flavour and therapeutic effects, abalone is guaranteed to appear in Chinese lunar New Year banquets and parties. Abalone tops the list of the most exquisite seafood in Chinese cuisine, along with sea cucumbers, shark fin, and fish maws. Fresh South African abalone, some of the most sought-after abalone in the world, is always the first choice for feasts in Cantonese restaurants, where one fresh abalone alone can be sold for nearly HK$2,000 (ZAR3,350). But in the recent years, over-fishing and smuggling of wild abalone have pushed this species, endemic to the South African coast, towards the edge of extinction.

Chit-yu Lau, general manager of Ah Yat Abalone restaurant, explained to Initium Media in an interview:

South Africa’s wild abalone is heavier and better than the farmed Japanese Junper abalone and Australian abalone in terms of flavour and texture. Our fresh South African abalone is imported through legitimate channels. The smuggled ones should be dried abalone, which are rarely seen in Hong Kong.

Nonetheless, in Johannesburg illicit abalone trade has been gathering significant attention from the local press. Many South African conservationists combating wildlife trafficking believe that the profitable abalone contraband market is heavily linked to the black market of ivory and rhino horn, both of which are driven by high demand from the Chinese market.

 

‘Smuggling only by new immigrants’

In the old Chinatown in Newtown in downtown Johannesburg, only a few Chinese restaurants are open while a few pedestrians walk the streets. It is hard to imagine that this neighbourhood used to be the main settlement built during the 19th century ‘gold rush’ by Chinese labourers who settled in South Africa. Today the remaining shops have heavy gates and security due to safety concerns in the neighbourhood, while many Chinese shop owners and new Chinese immigrants have set up another Chinatown along Derrick Avenue in Cyrildene, and even funded the establishment of two traditional Chinese archways there.

The older generation of Chinese immigrants who still stay in the old Chinatown, are mostly from the Panyu or Shunde areas in China’s Guangdong Province. Their children, who were born in South Africa, have gone through tertiary education and entered business one after another thanks to the end of apartheid in 1994. The Overseas Chinese Association office in the old Chinatown, which still functions as a clubhouse for social meetings, has witnessed how Chinese were elevated from second-class citizenship.

Perhaps because community status and dignity are hard to come by, these ‘old immigrants’ seem to carefully distinguish themselves from those Chinese who allegedly engage in ‘illegal activities’. In the Overseas Chinese Association office, a granny in her 60s told me in Cantonese, “After all, the black market for abalone is illegal, so Chinese here will neither speak about it nor easily introduce others to insiders.” The President of the Chinese Association in Gauteng Province, Erwin Pon, further explained, “As the government has strict control over abalone, only one or two licensed restaurants can legally procure and sell fresh abalone. As for smuggling activities, I think most of them are related to the new immigrants.”

Meanwhile, in Cyrildene an underground market for abalones flourishes. In one of the seafood wholesale shops, I consulted a salesgirl for the price of dried abalone. The young woman, who came from Fujian Province in China, told me bashfully, “We don’t sell abalone.” As I was leaving, a middle-aged man who was sitting next to the cash register suddenly began to speak, “Abalone is ZAR1,400 per kilo, and you have to buy at least five kilos. You can collect them after 5 pm.”

At the other end of the street, where I again posed as a customer, the owner of another seafood wholesaler wrote me down a phone number on a blank receipt and said, “Abalone is about ZAR1,200 per kilo, they are more expensive than before. I’m not at liberty to give you the address, but if you want abalone you can call this number. I don’t know his name though, we only call him xiaodi (little brother).”

All this left me wondering: How extensive is the transaction chain and how big is the market for abalone? How is South African abalone taken out from the sea reefs, processed and dried, smuggled into the cities, and then shipped to the other side of the ocean?

Abalone smuggling in South Africa. Source: DAFF, TRAFFIC. Image: Initium Media

Hong Kong the abalone trading epicentre

Before Chinese New Year, many old-style seafood shops in Hong Kong sell dried abalone from different origins in Wing Lok Street and Des Voeux Road West area, commonly known as the ‘seafood street’ in Sheung Wan, Hong Kong. Dried abalone from South Africa is priced per kilo in accordance with size. One seafood shop owner, Mr. Lee, told me that he hasn’t heard of any of his peers selling smuggled abalone, “The smuggled ones are not necessarily cheaper, and they will get you into trouble. It isn’t worth the risk.” A clerk from another wholesale seafood shop around the corner also said that abalone smuggling was ‘never heard of’ and insisted on their supply being completely legitimate.

The trade data, however, indicates otherwise. After analysing Hong Kong import data, Markus Burgener, head of the East African and Southern African Division of TRAFFIC, an international conservation network, found that more than 30,000 tons of dried abalone has been imported from East and Southern Africa to Hong Kong since 2001 – this is ten times higher than the South African government’s total allowable catch (TAC) for the same period.

Such a big discrepancy suggests a large number of dried abalone is smuggled to the Hong Kong market and re-exported to other Asian countries. It also denotes that the South African abalone bought by Hong Kong consumers are most likely sourced from illegal channels, and consumers and even some wholesalers may not be able to distinguish the source.

 

Ecological and regulatory crisis

The South African Department of Agriculture, Forestry and Fisheries’ estimates that the amount of illegally harvested wild abalone went up from 4 million in 2008 to 7 million in 2016. In other words, the government quota system is ineffective and simply unable to stop illegal fishing. In 2007, due to increased levels of illegal poaching, South African abalone was listed in Appendix III of the Convention on International Trade in Endangered Species of Wild Fauna and Flora (CITES), but were withdrawn by the South African Government after three years, reportedly due to difficulties in implementation.

The ecological crisis of South African abalone began to take shape in the 1970s. At that time, the South African Government first introduced the quota system and criminal penalties to ensure that the population of wild abalone remains stable. However, the apartheid regime was characterised by white dominance in commercial fishing, excluding the traditional ‘Coloured’ fishermen who were prompted to defy the law and join illegal fishing.

As border controls were gradually relaxed in South Africa since the late 1980s, organised crime groups led by Chinese and Asians began to exploit the gap in the market by recruiting people in coastal areas for massively and illegally smuggling captured abalone, and began to control the lucrative black market.

Since then the number of wild abalone in South Africa has been plummeting, forcing the government to lower the total capture quota allowance accordingly. Ultimately, the recreational license system introduced in 1983 had to be abolished after 20 years as ongoing patterns of abuse persisted.

In the town of Stellenbosch in the Western Cape, retired engineer Ken showed me his licensed Leisure Permit, conservation leaflet and measuring device from the 1990s, which were meant to guide the general public for abalone and crayfish fishing. However, the Leisure Permit system was abolished in 2003 due to soaring incidents of abuse. Photo: Crystal Chow/Initium Media

In his home in Stellenbosch, a small town about 50 km east of Cape Town, retired engineer Ken showed me his licensed Leisure Permit, conservation leaflet and measuring device issued in the 1990s that were meant to guide the general public on abalone and crayfish fishing without harming the proliferation of the species at sea. Recalling the distinct tangy taste of wild abalone (which used to be one of his favourites but can now only be found in high-end restaurants, Ken remarked, “This used to be part of our dining culture. We even had recipes for cooking abalone. But now we cannot get them anymore because of all the poaching that has been going on.”

 

Poaching and smuggling war

At the forefront of illegal abalone fishing in a small coastal town called Betty’s Bay, 76-year-old Mike Tannet was flipping through a black leather notebook filled with case records he has personally dealt with:

I started diving when I was 12 years old. After I grew up, I dived around the coral reefs on the coast of the Western Cape and was shocked to see abalone becoming less and less. A lot of abalone is being poached prematurely, directly impeding their reproduction, while seaweeds are surging due to the absence of ‘predators’.

It has been suggested that this makes it easier for seals to hide in the seaweeds from sharks, who find it harder to catch their ‘staple food’. In the long run starving sharks will have an unpredictable impact on the entire marine food chain. The abalones are a small piece of a far larger puzzle which may tip the balance of marine ecosystems.

Disturbed by what he saw as the consequence of unfettered poaching, in 1995 Mike Tannet and several volunteers formed ‘Sea Watch’ to monitor abalone poaching along the coast, and also set up a ‘hotline’ (his own cell phone number) for people to call at any time to report abalone poaching. On various occasions they even drove out to the scene to stop poachers from leaving with the abalone.

“For the last 20 years we have documented about 6,000 incidents of poaching.” But their work comes with considerable risks. Tannet and his wife have been physically attacked by poachers who are believed to have ties to gangsters, and a few volunteers nearly had their houses burnt down.

Emphasising the lack of proper legal enforcement to curb poaching, Tannet added:

They usually come at night, equipping themselves with weapons and motorboats. Sometimes even the police are unable to fight back and dare not chase them. I believe that some police officers are involved, so that they acquiesce and even coordinate with poachers to let them flee the scene. Even if they are arrested and prosecuted successfully, the penalties are only fines or very short prison terms, which are far from an effective deterrent.

Markus Burgener explained that there are several means of smuggling dried abalone all the way to Asia:

As far as we understand, there are two main ways for smuggling dried abalone out of country to Hong Kong and China. The first way is to smuggle them to a few landlocked neighbouring countries where there is no regulation over the trade of abalone, say Mozambique or Zimbabwe, then ‘import’ them back into South Africa before exporting them to Hong Kong under falsely declared origins. The second way is to store the dried abalone in a warehouse before shipping them off or transporting them to Hong Kong by air, either by using fraudulent documents or bribing certain people at Customs.

The main smuggling routes of South African abalone. Source: TRAFFIC; various news reports. Image: Initium Media

Numerous reports suggest that abalone smuggling has fueled another raging criminal economy in the coastal communities controlled by gangsters in the Western Cape: drug trafficking and distribution. In 2009 the South China Morning Post cited evidence pointing to the fact that gangs from Hong Kong and mainland China had been working with their South African peers to smuggle dried abalone to Hong Kong.

Burgener added:

There is an ethical aspect to the issue here. A lot of fishermen take risks to poach for gangs because of the limited job prospects in the community. Once they start it essentially means they have signed a contract with drug lords. They cannot stop and end up being enslaved, even their family and themselves are controlled by drugs.

In other words, smuggling abalone not only drives the species toward the verge of extinction, but also helps facilitate a transnational black market trading chain controlled by syndicates. In Cape Town, many locals warned me not to poke around in Hawston, a port town in Western Cape, otherwise I might get into ‘fatal danger’. It is widely believed that the port is controlled by one of the most prominent gangs in town.

 

‘Only the middlemen got rich’

In the city centre of Cape Town, posing as a customer, I saw palm-sized wild abalone in several upmarket Chinese restaurants, each priced between ZAR2,000 and ZAR3,000. One of the waiters even eagerly showed me a big abalone resting in the store fish tank, “I think it may be 60 years old.”

To the south of the city centre lies a community called Hangberg. nestled along the hillside in the coastal town Hout Bay. Louis (a pseudonym), a local fisherman, makes a living of illegal abalone fishing. He told me, however, that his catch from the sea can only earn him ZAR200 per kilo, often at the risk of getting caught or, worse, losing his life.

Louis showed me the empty abalone shells left lying all over the ground in the backyard of his house in Hangberg. Photo: Crystal Chow/Initium Media

Louis explained:

Sometimes we directly deal with the Chinese guys, and they usually pay us more, i.e. around ZAR350 to ZAR400 per kilo. But for us it is still safer to deal with a familiar local middleman instead. Say for example if he got ambushed by the police it would only be his problem, not ours. It works like this: we get the abalone, then we call the middleman to arrange pickups and to receive payment. And that is it. As for what factories the abalone will be delivered to or whom they will be sold to, I just don’t want to know.

But over a decade their returns haven’t increased in accordance with the soaring abalone market price. As Louis invited me into his house, sitting on the couch and lighting up a dagga (marijuana) joint, he lamented, “Only the middlemen got rich.” He raised his chin to point to his drab and slightly shabby living room where we sat, and said:

Look, I started fishing for abalone 15 years ago, but I have been living in houses like this. Those middlemen, including white guys and Chinese guys, own bungalows and fast boats. And we still have to buy everything we need and maintain all our equipment.

With such meager incomes they also struggle to provide for their families. “You have to know that we work as a team. Every time about seven of us go to fish and what we earn has to be divided among seven families. If we do not work, our children will go hungry.” Louis’ kitchen and bedroom are separated from the living room by a curtain. A fishing net lies right next to the refrigerator in the kitchen. Two children, about 6 or 7 years old, were preparing lunch for themselves and their puppy. From the small window in the kitchen one could get a glimpse of the harbour and the picturesque view of the coastline. But the view did not belong to them.

The Hout Bay port is visible from the outside of Louis’ house in Hangberg. Photo: Crystal Chow/Initium Media

“When the system fails you, you have to create your own systems,” Louis said.

Louis rejected the perception that poachers are drug addicts, as many seem to suggest:

I know there are ports in Western Cape that are controlled by gangs. I know what you say. But look, we work so hard to simply make a living. We have kids to feed. How could we have extra money to buy drugs? We need to dive and we need to maintain our normal body conditions. How can we possibly take drugs?

In order to steer clear of police patrols, poachers equip themselves with diving equipment and head torches and ride the night waves out to sea. The danger of the waves though is not as fearful as how policemen treat them when they are caught. “They will beat you and take everything away. Sometimes they even use rubber bullets on us, or hit us with a rifle,” Louis added. “Here we have a peaceful community, and not even the triads would come to our bay. The only source of violence is the police.”

At that moment, an older companion of Louis, Kopano (a pseudonym), cut in:

To us, fishing is the only way to make money. Fishing is the world we know and is our ancestral right. We should be able to fulfill all the criteria, but almost all of the quotas go to big companies, and laws are put on everything. Why does the government not recognise our rights? If we have the rights, we will look after the resources of our waters way better than the government.

 

‘Those who first dived for abalone were the whites’

Kopano said rather bitterly,

Those who first dived for abalone were the whites. There was a white policeman who did so and got rich, owning a big house and cars just outside of our town. We all know about that, but we can do nothing. During apartheid, white people got away all the time… But when we have to do the same just to make a living, they start labeling us.

He continued:

About two decades ago we all worked intermittently for big fishing companies as subcontractors. Every three months we were laid off. We tried to fight for better wages by organising a strike, and they just fired all of us. They thought we ‘Coloured people’ were getting a little bit too wise. Now the majority of workers at the ports are migrants from the Congo or Zimbabwe because they are more than willing to take any jobs at wages even lower than ZAR100 per day.

Louis, Kopano, and their friends have made a living from abalone poaching since the early 2000s. Kopano laments, “The saddest thing for us is that most people don’t know that we never dived for abalone before that. We did not even know how much abalone would cost.”

Louis recalled vividly how he embarked on his life as a ‘poacher’ when he was still a high school student:

At that time there was a big-name white guy around Hangberg. One day I was on the coast and saw him fishing for crayfish using a speedboat. There was even a guy on the boat cooking the crayfish for him as lunch. Then he approached me and asked if I wanted to dive for abalone for him. After I was done, he asked me, “Are you coming tomorrow?”, while holding four big bags of the catch.

During the time of apartheid, Hangberg was a segregated zone for Coloured people. Opposite to Cape Town lay Robben Island, the reef that Louis and his friends frequented. It was also where South Africa’s first black President Nelson Mandela and other political prisoners were imprisoned. And yet after 22 years, the vision of an equal and prosperous nation promised by the end of apartheid remains unrealised.

“We used to stay in the valley and leave the coastlines to them. Now they even want to have the slopes,” Kopano said, affirming what he sees as his identity: “We never call ourselves poachers. We are all fishermen, the aborigines.”

In a fishing village called Hanberg in Hout Bay in Western Cape, Louis, an abalone poacher, has nets for fish and crayfish at home. Photo: Crystal Chow/Initium Media

 

‘Lines between legal and black markets very blurry’

The conflict between conservation and livelihood rights, compounded by the ineffective policy enforcement, has led to a general distrust of the existing establishment.

Louis and Kopano believe that scientists conducting research on the coast are deliberately exaggerating the abalone crisis so they can receive ‘kickbacks’ from fishery giants. Likewise, Mike Tannet believes that the corruption characterising attempts to control abalone smuggling is not only apparent within the local police department; the Department of Agriculture, Forestry and Fisheries also has an incentive not to enforce the law.

“The current practice of the Department is to auction confiscated abalone to the highest bidder. Since the profits will go to the Department, it may be possible that they continue to connive at poaching and do less than enough”, Tannet said.

In 1999 the Department launched a series of measures against illegal abalone fishing. In 2003 an Environmental Protection Tribunal was set up to prosecute the poachers and anyone involved in the illicit trade. However, these enforcement mechanisms were terminated around 2006. To Mike Tannet this attests to the policy pitfalls: “People in this town trust Sea Watch more than the police and the Department.”

However, Brenton Holloway, Senior Inspector of Marine Conservation under the Department, explained to me that the accusation does not hold water. “The auctions are managed by the Compliance Office, and the money they make out of the auctions does not go into the operation of the Department. In fact, there have been too much red tape and competition across units over resources in the Department. Our manpower and equipment are nothing compared to those professional poachers.”

His colleague Johan Kruger, also a Senior Inspector, added, “Their boats are bigger and faster than ours. One time we were issued with guns, but there were no bullets in the magazines! There was another time where one of our storage units was burnt down. Without assistance from the Navy, there is little we inspectors can do.”

But Holloway admitted that the way the Department handles confiscated abalone does not present an ideal financing mechanism. “The problem is that it enables the major players in the black market to benefit from the auction, thus further controlling the market. I am not aware that the Department is tracking the sale of this abalone, but from what I know the lines between the legal market and the black market are very blurry here in South Africa.”

Given the plight of these fishermen and the intertwined vested interests, even if the authorities scale-up enforcement, it can at best only offer some palliative remedy but will not solve the root cause of the problem.

“The most pragmatic and effective instruments would be to re-establish a more stringent enforcement mechanism, which is similar to the ‘Green Court’, complemented by substantial investment on infrastructure and strong support for community fisheries. The poaching problem is more or less an employment issue,” Burgener explained.

But Louis holds little hope of these well-intended proposals. At the beginning of 2016 the Department implemented a pilot policy scheme for providing support for small-scale fishing, but he did not think that the benefits would be of much help.

“Right now the total allowable catch for abalone is set at 98 tons per year. Even if we can get half of this quota, it is still far from enough for our community to share. So even if these policies are put in place, it would not be viable. We still need to continue poaching,” Louis said. For them, the volume is still too low to compete with the black market, and the opportunity costs to give up poaching is simply too high.

 

Can farming be the solution?

A group of workers at Abagold’s processing facility handling fresh abalone. Photo: Crystal Chow/Initium Media

South Africa’s emerging abalone farming industry appears to be a potential way out of the crisis. Louis is aware of what poaching means for future generations. “We do know wild abalone is in decline. Maybe by the time our children grow up, they will be all gone. So if we can do abalone farming and set up our own enterprise, perhaps we can all finally stop poaching.”

The sizable overseas market for abalone and the vision of ‘sustainable abalone fishing’ have contributed to this growing aquaculture industry. While giving me a tour of their farming tanks and the processing plants in Hermanus, a coastal town in the southern tip of Western Cape, Werner Piek, marketing manager at Abagold, one of South Africa’s largest abalone breeders and exporters, said, “All of our abalone here are farmed organically and fed with natural seaweeds. We do not apply any chemicals during the processing stages.

“After we harvest the fully-grown abalone, they are all sent to the adjacent processing facility where they are cleaned, soaked, checked, and canned before being exported to various Asian countries,” Piek added. “Abagold is the only brand in the market that has the ‘Friends of the Sea’ certification.”

At present the total annual production of licensed farmed abalone in South Africa is about 1,500 tons, of which Abagold accounts for a fifth. Should this industry continue to grow, will it be able to mitigate the threat of over-fishing of wild abalone?

Most conservationists tend to think that given the current scale of the aquaculture industry and its high upfront investment costs, farmed abalone are as yet unable to compete with wild abalone in terms of price and volume, let alone replacing them.

“It is too early to tell whether it could be a viable way to repopulate the species by placing farmed abalone into the sea. Early studies reveal that abalone can’t easily adapt to complex marine ecosystems nor successfully reproduce in this habitat. There are just too many variables involved in terms of the shift in habitat. More research is needed,” Burgener explained.

 

What role for Hong Kong?

So what role can Hong Kong play, sitting at the heart of the abalone trade?

Piek believes that a strict import labeling system will help consumers distinguish the source of dried abalone. “All canned abalone exports must be legal since there are very rigorous licensing and inspection involved throughout production. But dried abalone are not regulated at all, and there is the loophole.”

Citing health concerns, Piek added:

Actually one of the problems about illegal dried abalone is that they usually contain a considerable amount of inedible or even harmful chemicals. So if the Hong Kong government either requires all the imported dried abalone to be provided with health certificates, or requires the local distributors to apply for environmental certificates, then a lot of illegal abalone would likely be unable to pass through Customs in the first place.

Piek also believes that the matter largely hinges on the willingness of the authorities in Hong Kong. “Of course we can push for things here in South Africa. But the problem is, if Hong Kong does not take the initiative and ask for it, there will not be much happening on our side.”

Werner Piek, marketing manager at Abagold, believes that consumers can infer if abalone is legally imported from their appearance, colour and odor. Photo: Crystal Chow/Initium Media

Unfortunately the issue of South African abalone smuggling does not receive much attention from the Hong Kong authorities. A major challenge has to do with the law: Since the South African Government has withdrawn the conservation status of primary abalone under CITES, the Hong Kong Agriculture, Fisheries and Conservation Department has no legal basis to curb abalone smuggling.

In the past Hong Kong Customs cooperated with law enforcement departments in South Africa on individual wildlife smuggling cases. However, in response to a written interview request from Initium Media, the Hong Kong authorities said that the relevant departments had “no figures available under this classification”, and the public hence could not access trends and information of the relevant cases.

So what if the public seeks to consume less South African dried abalone? A dilemma remains. From the perspective of consumers, the price of smuggled dried abalone is indeed popular and stable, yet in South African coastal fishing villages like Hangberg, abalone poaching is still vital to the livelihood of the fishermen living in poverty.

The silver-haired Mike Tannet lamented, “It reminds me of a saying about a policeman on the coast in England, where it is called ‘Bobby on the beach’. He is dedicated to his duty and the neighbourhood, and everyone comes to trust him. We now need someone like him, as I sometimes really do not know who to trust.” His duty of guarding the coast is unlikely to end for the rest of his life. He even suggested me to keep an eye on the African penguins: “Their population is gradually disappearing, mostly I think because of over-fishing in the southwest coast of Africa.”

At the other side of the coast, Louis took me to his backyard where hundreds of empty abalone shells that he and his companions caught over the preceding week were twinkling silver green under the sun. Then he said, “We used to talk about the idea of the ‘Rainbow Nation’ where people are entitled to claim the land that belongs to everyone. It has not happened yet, but I guess I will keep waiting till I die.”

Kimon de Greef contributed to this story.

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