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Could abandoning protections save South African abalone?

  • A new report exposes multilayered damages associated with the abalone poaching industry between South Africa and East Asia.
  • The illegal trade is embedded in South Africa’s deeply unequal society.
  • A highly organized supply chain has led to the near-depletion of the species, the corruption of state institutions, and fuelled gang violence in impoverished communities.
  • With decades of anti-poaching efforts failing to curb the illicit trade, the authors of the report suggest a radical change of policy: letting the abalone go commercially extinct.

For the past 30 years, soaring demand from East Asia has fueled massive poaching of a South African abalone, Haliotis midae, reducing the mollusk’s population to a fraction of its former abundance. A new report suggests that legalizing this overexploitation may be the only way to save the species from going extinct and curb the violent crime surrounding the trade.

The report’s authors project that abandoning conventional anti-poaching measures and allowing poachers to deplete abalone populations to levels at which harvesting it would no longer be profitable would likely lead to a short-term surge in poaching. Ultimately, however, it could open up opportunities for the government to create legal income streams for coastal communities.

H. midae, a large sea snail locally known as perlemoen (from the Dutch for “mother-of-pearl”), is one of five species of abalone found in shallow reefs along South Africa’s western and eastern coasts, and the only one harvested commercially.

Scientists projected abalone populations would collapse years ago due to harvesting far in excess of the species’ natural reproduction rate. It has proven more resilient than expected, but according to report co-author and freelance journalist Kimon de Greef, it can’t hold out against massive exploitation forever: “There are biological limits on how much exploitation can occur before something does go extinct.”

Wild harvesting of abalone without a permit is illegal under South African law. But data for the period between 2000 and 2016, collected by the wildlife monitoring network TRAFFIC, show soaring imports of the mollusk into Hong Kong. In 2015, for example, South African authorities issued permits allowing for 96 metric tons of wild abalone to be collected: but 1,700 metric tons were imported into Hong Kong. De Greef said that poachers catch an estimated 30 times the amount of the legal fishery.

Haliotis midae collected for a restaurant in South Africa. This is the only abalone harvested commercially in South Africa. Image by Vilseskogen via Flickr (CC BY-NC 2.0).

Illegal at source becomes legal at destination

One problem is that South Africa is the only country where the wild harvesting of abalone is illegal. “Neighboring countries don’t often have the legal basis, let alone the kind of political direction to search for abalone or prosecute anyone under laws relating to it,” Simone Haysom, the other co-author of the report and senior analyst with the Global Initiative Against Transnational Organized Crime (GI-TOC), told Mongabay.

The species enjoyed greater international protection when it was listed under CITES, the global convention on the wildlife trade, which imposes certain obligations on signatory countries. But in 2010, South Africa asked for H. midae to be delisted due to “administrative problems” regarding the timely issuing of export permits for abalone in all its forms (fresh, frozen, canned, and dried). The CITES permit system was also opposed by the country’s legal abalone fishers, who threatened to sue the government.

As things stand, abalone can be imported without limitations by any registered trading company in the world.

Hong Kong, the world’s biggest importer of abalone, has few import controls on the mollusk or indeed any other wildlife product. “Once it arrives in Hong Kong, there aren’t mechanisms for seizing the wildlife or bringing charges solely on the basis of laws that may have been broken in another jurisdiction,” Sam Inglis, wildlife program manager at the ADM Capital Foundation (ADMCF) in Hong Kong, which works on environmental and social challenges across Asia, told Mongabay. He said he hopes this will change soon: Wildlife smuggling was added to the territory’s Organized and Serious Crimes Ordinance (OSCC) last year.

But, Inglis said, “the challenge is ensuring that customs and the police actually treat wildlife crimes as the organized and serious crimes that they truly are.”

Exotic seafood in Hong Kong. Hong Kong, the world’s biggest importer of abalone, has few import controls on the abalones or indeed any other wildlife product. Image by Jason Wong via Flickr (CC BY-NC-ND 2.0).
A Korean grilled abalone dish. For the past 30 years, soaring demand from East Asia has fueled massive poaching of the Haliotis midae. Image by Manji via Wikimedia Commons (CC BY-SA 2.0).

Unorthodox recommendation

In their report, Haysom and de Greef conclude that current and past approaches have failed to limit the illegal harvest of abalone. Their first recommendation is that South Africa stops the often violent policing of poor people in coastal communities, and instead direct resources toward the interdiction of criminal organizations.

They also conclude that an entirely new approach is needed. “It’s very clear that continuing with the status quo and a law enforcement-led response to the issue is not going to change the basic trajectory of either the environmental or the social harms,” Haysom said.

They propose allowing H. midae to become “commercially extinct” — effectively, allow unlimited harvest of the abalone until its population has been so depleted that harvesting it is no longer profitable.

For the authors, the violent and uncontrollable nature of the illegal trade leaves policymakers with few other options. Allowing abalone to be fished out would shut down the illicit trade. Working-class poachers would be immediately relieved of the burden of harassment and arrest by law enforcement, though once the resource has been exhausted, they would also lose an important source of income. At that point, organized gangs would also lose incentives to operate in coastal communities, and corrupt financial flows would dry up.

Commercial farming of the species would continue, and avenues could be explored for more inclusive access for impoverished communities who are currently pushed into the illicit trade by tight quotas. Haysom and de Greef said the levels of community cohesion and cooperation needed for the inclusion of coastal communities in the aquaculture industry are “starkly at odds with the current reality of most settlements where poaching has taken root.”

While the mollusk’s role in its coastal habitat isn’t well understood by scientists, the two researchers conclude that the massive decline has likely already disrupted the marine ecosystems where it’s poached, especially in Western Cape province. The question is whether, if it disappears, it could be easily reintroduced through South Africa’s aquaculture sector.

Ultimately, the harm has already been done. “And the thought is not to give up on the species, but to give up on enforcement at the poaching level as a response to saving it,” Haysom said.

Abalone abandoned by poachers in Cape Agulhas, South Africa. Image by via Flickr (CC BY-NC-ND 2.0).

Embedded in an unequal society

While other species of abalone have long been harvested for commercial trade in the U.S., Australia and Japan, abalone poaching emerged in South Africa in the early 1990s as the Chinese and South African economies opened up to the world. For a growing middle class across East Asia, wildlife products like pangolins, civets, sea cucumbers and abalone became a way to show off wealth and status. The insatiable demand found ready suppliers from a South Africa newly freed from trade sanctions as formal apartheid ended.

Thirty years after non-racial elections, South Africa remains the most unequal society in the world. “We live in a democracy that has not in any way addressed the imbalances and injustices of the past, so you have these coastal ghettos where people are going to do what they can do to make a coin,” said de Greef, who also wrote a book about the abalone trade with poacher Shuhood Abader.

“Abalone poaching is embedded into the fabric of marginalized communities wherever abalone occurs.”

Once harvested, fresh abalone is dried and then transported by road across the border into neighboring countries. According to de Greef and Haysom’s interviewees, the most popular smuggling routes lead to the Namibian capital Windhoek, or through Zimbabwe for export to East Asia via Zambia or the Democratic Republic of Congo.

Organized criminal networks have found it easy to evade South Africa’s law enforcement tactics. Between 2008 and 2010, the Department of Forestry, Fisheries and Environment (DFFE) shut down even the legal abalone market entirely, but exports of H. midae from the country’s neighbors continued to increase.

Illegal ‘white gold,’ South Africa’s abalone, pouring into Hong Kong: TRAFFIC

Banner image: Exotic seafood in Hong Kong. Image by Jason Wong via Flickr (CC BY-NC-ND 2.0).

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