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The strange black market abalone industry

This post is by Kimon de Greef, freelance journalist and author of the new book Poacher. Confessions from the Abalone Underworld (2018). See an extract of the book here. Kimon will be appearing at the Africa-China Journalists Forum this week at Wits University, and copies of his new book will be available for purchase.  

It is among the world’s stranger black market industries, stretching from the shores of South Africa to China’s luxury seafood market, via drug barons, corrupt officials and neighbouring African states.

But the illicit trade in abalone, a marine snail with a scooped grey shell, has had profound environmental and social costs in South Africa, decimating stocks of the shellfish while drawing local fishing communities into the criminal underworld.

Since 2000, according to a new report by Traffic, poaching syndicates have smuggled more than 96 million individual abalone to Hong Kong, the epicentre of the trade. This equates to nearly 15,000 abalone per day.

Worth at least US$60 million per year, the illegal trade in abalone now counts as South Africa’s third most valuable fishery, Traffic says, controlled by local gangs and Chinese mafia groups.

Police officials say that syndicates barter shipments of abalone for methamphetamine or its precursor chemicals, embedding the trade within South Africa’s drug economy. In fishing communities supplying the syndicates, abalone middlemen are often closely linked to gangs and drug merchants.

“This is not just a fisheries problem,” said Traffic’s Markus Bürgener. “Many other agencies need to get involved to address the problem holistically.”

A status symbol in Chinese cuisine, abalone is regarded one of four ‘marine treasures’, along with shark’s fin, sea cucumber and the swim bladders of certain fish. One of the most expensive varieties of abalone occurs only in South Africa, where it has been subject since the 1990s to relentless poaching.

The illegal trade exploded in the years after apartheid, when South Africa’s borders opened and international sanctions were abolished. Local fishing communities had been marginalised for generations by anti-black laws, and many residents expected reform and economic opportunity to follow. But change was slow in the fishing industry, bogged down by politics and corruption. Instead, droves of people turned to smuggling abalone.

Rapid economic growth in China was boosting demand for status items, and the price of abalone had soared. In South Africa, Chinese buyers were soon offering more than US$40 per kg of the shellfish, setting off a rush that has continued until today.

Trade statistics from Hong Kong, where most of the imported abalone is declared upon arrival, even if it was harvested illegally, indicate that current poaching levels are among the highest on record. In 2016, Traffic says, Hong Kong imported more than 3,200 tonnes of poached abalone, compared to less than 2,000 tonnes of legal product.

The bulk of the legal product comes from South Africa’s growing abalone farming sector, which now produces nearly 2,000 tonnes of abalone per year. The commercial abalone fishery, once stable and responsibly managed, has all but collapsed due to resource depletion, with an annual quota of just 96 tonnes — less than 5% of the poached total.

Thick abalone beds once blanketed shallow reefs on South Africa’s southern and western shores, often packed edge to edge. Now only traces of this former abundance remain, picked clean by divers supplying the black market.

Poachers who could harvest more than 80 kg of abalone meat in a single dive now seldom return with more than 15 kg. “This thing is nearly finished,” said one of them, Shuhood Abader, with whom I recently coauthored a book on the illicit abalone trade.

Set against these shrinking catches, Traffic’s trade statistics show that abalone poaching effort — the combined hours that divers spend in the water — is currently much higher than it has ever been before. This is despite two decades of concerted anti-poaching efforts by the authorities.

One reason is corruption: Money from the abalone black market has seeped into every agency tasked with curbing it, including the police, national parks service and fisheries department. Just in May, nine fisheries officials were arrested for colluding with poachers, while the department’s deputy director-general has been accused of rigging auctions of confiscated abalone.

Another reason is that the circumstances that produced South Africa’s illicit abalone trade are still firmly ingrained, with mass unemployment and some of the world’s highest income inequality. In fishing communities, few people besides poachers and drug merchants have the means to earn good money. This gives rise to a curious symmetry: both in China and in South Africa, the abalone trade is driven by aspiration and status.

Third, there are no international agreements for regulating the trade in abalone. To avoid detection at South African ports, syndicates ship tonnes of abalone each year via neighbouring African states, accounting for nearly 45% of the exported total since 2000. Traffic has called for South African abalone to be listed by the Convention on International Trade in Endangered Species (Cites) to better control these trade routes.

In the meantime, poaching grinds on, supplying a luxury food for distant Chinese plates. Dried South African abalone can cost hundreds of dollars per kg, served to celebrate special occasions or honour guests. Money from consumers trickles back, via a convoluted chain of intermediaries, to divers willing to risk their lives hunting the shellfish: a species, once abundant, that became ensnared in human displays of wealth.

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