The illicit abalone trade: a poaching problem

There are five species of abalone endemic to South Africa, but only one, Haliotis midae, is of any commercial value. Known in South Africa as perlemoen (from the Dutch Paarlemoer, meaning mother-of-pearl), it was endemic to several hundred kilometres of South African coastline stretching from Table Bay to the Eastern Cape before overexploitation threatened it with extinction.

 It is a large marine snail with a shell length of up to 230mm that lives in shallow water and takes seven to nine years to mature. It is believed to live for 30 years or longer.

The meat of perlemoen has always been highly valued in East Asia, and South Africans were aware of its commercial value throughout the second half of the twentieth century. Unrestricted commercial harvesting began in South Africa in 1949. By the mid-1960s, about 2,800 tons of abalone were being taken from the sea annually. In a bid to stem overexploitation and protect the resource, seasonal quotas were introduced in 1970. The first annual quota (or Total Allowable Catch) was 700 tons, and decreased marginally and incrementally over the following two-and-a-half decades; by 1995, the annual quota was 615 tons.

It is common knowledge that poaching is as old as the quota itself, but it is also common knowledge that levels of poaching remained negligible – or at very least containable – for the first two decades after the quota’s introduction. All of this changed dramatically during South Africa’s transition to democracy. 

Poaching began to escalate in the early 1990s. By the late 1990s it had become a highly organised, multi-million dollar illicit industry, controlled by street gangs on the shoreline and by transnational criminal enterprises on the trade routes to East Asia.

Despite increasing investments in shoreline patrolling and enforcement, the initiation of several large and well-resourced organised crime investigative projects, and countless plans to reorganise the control of South Africa’s borders, it appears that the illegal industry has been able to harvest and export South African abalone at will.

It has thus taken the illicit industry little more than a decade to bring wild perlemoen to the brink of commercial extinction.

The poaching of perlemoen is an extremely complex ongoing issue and the effects on the environment are only speculative at best, what is known is that this scale of poaching is not sustainable and as the resource slowly becomes more difficult to obtain local fishing, residential and holiday communities now have established gangs and there associated activities including drugs use and distribution and general escalating crime to contend with.