Of Abalone, Drugs, Dwindling Populations & Economic Empowerment

I have always found it interesting– and increasingly valuable– to explore our relationship with nature, the myriad products we consume that come directly to us as a result of “nature’s bounty”, the pervasive role they play in our lives and how they are inextricably bound up in our memories.
Growing up in Brooklyn, New York, a love of shellfish began to develop in me in my youth – I still recall vividly trips to Lundy’s raw bar in Sheepshead Bay and fresh lobster dinner at Brown’s Lobster House in Far Rockaway. As a boy, my mother would send me out to one of her favorite Italian restaurants to order the night’s dinner, a ritual that almost always included an order of scungilli salad. Many years later, I was laid up in a Bahamas hotel for nearly three days of what was supposed to be a romantic vacation thanks to my eagerness to eat a ‚Äònot really fresh’ raw conch salad plucked from the back of flat-bed pickup. Years after that, I spent some time in the ecological gem of an area that includes the Conch Republic, otherwise known as Key West, where, as in a growing number of once prolific breeding grounds and habitats, there are practically speaking no conch to be had.

Scungilli or conch, the marine snail more widely known as abalone, is an increasingly rarer and more expensive shellfish. Once a thriving industry in the US, California banned commercial abalone fishing in 1997 and is still waiting for populations to recover. What’s offered in San Francisco restaurants is for the most part imported from Australia and New Zealand and priced at $50 to $70 per plate, having increasing 7 to 10 times faster than inflation, as was reported in a recent article on Bloomberg.com .

Illustrations of the threat we pose to other species and the environment and our inability to manage use of our marine and terrestrial natural resources are increasingly common, and one can be seen in the decimation of one of the few remaining wild marine populations of abalone taking place here in South Africa’s Western Cape Province south of Cape Town. Known here as perlemoen–a bastardization of the Afrikaans word perlemoer, mother-of- pearl in English – part of what was a budding “small enterprise”, shellfish industry success story built around wild and cultivated stocks of abalone came to a screeching halt when the Dept. of Environmental Affairs and Tourism (DEAT) last week issued an outright, complete and indefinite ban on abalone harvesting.

The Abalone Connection

Fig. 1: World Abalone Landings excluding Illegal Catch*
Country 2002 1970-1980
Japan 2146 5676
New Zealand 1153 1000
Australia 4974 5627
USA 0 0
Mexico 1066 4473
South Africa 431 1318
Others 442 263
* Tables from Journal of Shellfisheries Research, Dec. 15, 2004 by H. Roy Gordon, Peter A. Cook (http://shellfish.org/pubs/jsr.htm)

Fig. 2: World Illegal Abalone Catch*
Japan 536
New Zealand 400
Australia 1000
USA 250
Mexico 550
South Africa 850
Others 110

South Africa’s DEAT since 2004 has been warning that a ban on abalone harvesting was likely if over-harvesting – mainly the result of rampant poaching– wasn’t brought under control. In the interim the environment department has tried to fashion a broad-based abalone revitalization plan that includes a socio-economic safety net for displaced fishers, but that’s providing little if any satisfaction and no real solace to the law-abiding people who rely on abalone harvesting for their livelihoods, or those who have pumped capital, time and effort to start-up and build local businesses.

“From a biological perspective (harvesting) should have been shut years ago, but it was phased out slowly to mitigate the social impact,” Peter Britz, a perlemoen expert and head of the Department of Ichthyology and Fisheries Science at Rhodes University, in one of a series of articles that has appeared in Cape Argus this past week.

What’s worse is that there’s a particularly nasty aspect to all this. It’s been rampant, apparently uncontrollable poaching that more than anything else has forced the government to take this drastic action. It turns out that perlemoen, or abalone, in some twisted way, has become the currency of choice for ruthless drug gangs manufacturing and distributing tik – speed or methamphetamine, as it is also known.

Noting that legal commercial harvesters were responsible for a mere 10% of the Western Cape’s total abalone catch, Cape Town forensic scientist David Klatzow told the Weekend Argus that the government’s suspension was misguided. “It’s the poachers the department should be concerned about.”
A senior police source working with provincial organized crime unit told the Weekend Argus on Friday that a shortage of perlemoen would affect the tik market as perlemoen was often swapped for pseudoephedrine, an essential ingredient in manufacturing the drug.

The source said the ban and more security on the coast would tighten the market and could possibly spark a “bloodbath” at sea.

“The 28s gang, which runs the abalone and tik trade, will now have a tougher time getting abalone, which will result in them charging more for it. In turn they’ll receive less of the drug ingredient and will be forced to sell tik at higher prices,” the Argus reported.
Scott Russell, head of the South African Abalone Industry Association, added, “Industry is outraged by the decision. More than 1000 people have now been left destitute, and many are planning to protest. Those who have been law-abiding all along are now seeing how their hard work, years of training and investment in expensive equipment has come to nothing.”

He added that local abalone harvesters had not hear anything about government’s social and economic relief plans and that many would turn to poaching because they had no other mean s of earning a living.

According to DEAT, some 300 individuals will lose their main sources of income as a result of the suspension. As reported in Cape Argus, “There are currently 302 rights holders (262 individual divers and 40 legal entities in the form of close corporations) operating in the sector with about 800 jobs, including the individual divers. These are the people and families this decision will impact on the most.

“We have therefore consulted with the Department of Labour and jointly developed a Social Plan to mitigate impacts of suspending Wild Abalone Commercial Fishing. This plan includes our departments’ commitment to developing a sustainable aquaculture industry and the issuing of additional permits for whale watching and shark cage diving,” Marthinus van Schalkwyk, Minister of Environmental Affairs & Tourism, explained.
A Valuable, and Rapidly Declining, Wild Resource

Abalone farming is recognized as a key aspect of South Africa’s efforts to develop local sustainable aquaculture/mariculture businesses and foster Black empowerment. More than 1,600 jobs have been created as a result. Western Cape abalone harvesters produced their first ten tons in 1997 and by 2003 production had increased to 515. Things have gone downhill since.

According to DEAT, abalone farming generates more income and employment than any other farmed fish product in the marine aquaculture sector. Besides providing gainful employment to more than 800 people – 80% of the total employed in the marine aquaculture sector – abalone harvesting generated more than R141 billion in revenue in 2006.

Despite clear evidence of rapidly diminishing wild stocks and rampant poaching, some 900 tons of abalone were produced legally last year, and the industry continues to grow. There are 15 commercial abalone farms in operation in South Africa. DEAT last year issued 23 permits to cultivate the one species of abalone on which the entire industry relies. According to DEAT, the Total Allowable Catch (TAC) for 2006 was 223 tons. This was reduced further, to 125 tons, for 2007.

“Clearly abalone is more of a moneymaking than a survival game, but surely that makes it even more important that rights are allocated fairly,” Rob Tarr pointed out in The Perlemoen Problem, an insightful article written by Jean Redpath based on first-hand research done way back in 2002. “We have a great deal of trouble estimating how much is left. We do the best we can to allocate fairly a correct Total Allowable Catch.”
Like many increasingly scare natural fish stocks – as well as a myriad host of other natural and man-made products from rhino horn to software–the vast bulk, as much as 95%, of poached abalone is shipped out to the Far East, mainly mainland China via Hong Kong. The South African government has been trying to negotiate a bilateral agreement with China to limit the unlicensed, illegal trade, according to the Redpath article.

Aquaculture & Better Enforcement

DEAT has its work cut out for it from top to bottom and right down the line when it comes to living up to its mandate to foster and regulate local economic development and institute environmental conservation. Like most of its counterparts, the government seems incapable of creating the safe, cooperative, well-informed and reliable environment among individuals, businesses and environmental groups necessary to save and steward what remains of the Western Cape’s wild abalone population.

The Masifundise Trust, which works with small-scale and traditional fishing and coastal communities in the Western Cape, is among the ban’s critics. Though it recognizes the seriousness of the extinction threat, punishing traditional fishers was “discriminatory, foolhardy and will most certainly backfire.”
As is the case around the world and for growing numbers of marine and terrestrial plant and animal species, the government is looking to farm-raised cultivation and reliance on the private sector, along with stricter and better-equipped enforcement efforts, to remedy what has become a dire situation.

I&J Fisheries, which got into abalone farming as far back as 1991, has invested more R20 million (US $3.081 million) to build an abalone farm in the Western Cape, explore the export market, particularly in East Asia, as well as enter into a joint venture with a Chilean company.

DEAT plans to strengthen and expand its monitoring and control efforts and conduct regular research surveys on abalone population dynamics. The Cape Town Cabinet said that policing efforts will be increased to try to stop poaching. The Department’s Mava Scott told the Weekend Argus that the only way to deal with criminals was to arrest them – even if they were armed with rifles.

“We are strengthening all our enforcement units. We also want to strike partnerships with communities to fight poaching. The suspension of abalone fishing does not mean poaching will stop. They will continue, but we are monitoring them and will make it more and more difficult for them to continue.”

South Africa’s wild abalone stocks were placed on CITES Appendix III earlier this year. Aaniyah Omardien, the WWF Sanlam Marine Programme manager, told the Weekend Argus, “A comprehensive long-term strategy to manage the fishery is needed that includes consultation with rights-holders who rely on this fishery for their livelihood and other stakeholders, improved compliance measures and more rigorous trade measures.”
Abalone is a slow-growing variety of marine snail that lives. It takes eight years for them to reach sexual maturity and around another four for their shells to grow to the minimum diameter of 115 millimeters suitable for harvesting. Fortunately, though difficult to cultivate, research has shown that 30-50% of abalone cultivated in hatcheries and introduced to the wild to spawn survive. Most abalone processors which once relied on wild stock are now processing the cultivated variety.

Maria Hauck, a senior researcher at the University of Cape Town’s Environmental Evaluation Unit, told the Weekend Argus, “Stocks will increase only if you stop illegal fishing… The government has alienated legal rights holders, when it should have partnered with them in managing the resource.”

An independent journalist, researcher and writer, my work roams across the nexus where ecology, technology, political economy and sociology intersect and overlap. The lifelong quest for knowledge of the world and self -- not to mention gainful employment -- has led me near and far afield, from Europe, across the Asia-Pacific, Middle East and Africa and back home to the Americas. LinkedIn: andrew burger Google+: Andrew B Email: huginn.muggin@gmail.com