Poachers threaten survival of abalone

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Posted by on May 21, 2005 at 20:46:26:

Organized gangs stripping the costly shellfish from reefs in South Africa to satisy a growing demand from Asian diners are putting the delicacy in danger

MARINE agent Daniel van der Westhuizen stood on the shore of the sandy white beach and scanned the swelling seas through binoculars.

A short-wave radio at his side suddenly cackled into life, giving warning that a “rubber duck” — the name the authorities give to the black rubber Zodiac dinghies increasingly used by abalone poachers — was reportedly active in the picturesque bay.

“It is hard to spot them, especially when it is rough like today,” he said as he tried to pick out the wetsuited divers from among a mix of seaweed and kelp floating above the hidden reefs.

Abalone, a giant sea snail reputed to have aphrodisiac properties, is a delicacy in Asia. Prices have rocketed in recent years, spawning a thriving black market.

The boats, which have powerful outboard engines and can outrun naval patrols, allow the abalone poachers, who previously worked only from the shore, to steal from richer, more inaccessible reefs in several locations in one foray.

“If they see us, they just stash the abalone somewhere on the reef and say they are just diving, and come back later and pick it up,” said Tian Loedolff, leader of the area’s anti-poaching unit. The shallow waters of the wild coast to the east of Cape Town — hitherto best known for whales and great white sharks — used to be home to vast quantities of abalone which could be plucked from the sea at knee-depth.

Now the species, which is also found in Australia and New Zealand, is battling to survive.

“It is incredible. When I was a boy it was everywhere. Now you see very few of them near the shore. In another few years, it will be gone completely,” said Mr Loedolff, a 34-year-old former policeman.

As the Chinese have grown wealthier, their appetite for foods once enjoyed only by the elite has soared.

The commercial abalone business, policed by a strict quota system, can not meet demand and Chinese triads, sensing easy money, have moved in. More than 90 per cent of abalone taken from South Africa’s waters now finds its way to Hong Kong and Taiwan.

The rewards are huge. Abalone in Hong Kong can fetch as much as £50 apiece. Such profits make it easy to bribe local officials and police, three of whom were recently jailed for involvement in the trade.

The influx of money has triggered a rush to coastal fishing towns such as Gansbaai and Hermanus, putting residents in fear of reprisals if they tip off the authorities.

New cars and satellite television dishes are common outside rundown township shacks. Abalone shells glint in nearby bushes.

Even relatively well-off local farmers have cashed in, hiding stocks of abalone on their farms until they can be safely transported out of the area.

Mr Loedolff said: “Everyone has moved into the trade, but it is a false economy which cannot last and it has brought other problems with it. There never used to be crime in this area. Now there is. When the sea is too rough for poaching, house break-ins rise.”

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