Poachers have taken at least 96 million units of South Africa’s abalone in the past 17 years, leaving the future of the snail-like sea delicacy in danger of becoming extinct, according to international wildlife trade monitoring network TRAFFIC.
“Efforts to curb the illegal trade have roundly failed. Once abundant, the population of South African abalone Haliotis midae is declining to unprecedented levels,” warned TRAFFIC in the report titled: Empty Shells: An assessment of abalone poaching and trade from southern Africa.
“The rampant illegal harvesting of abalone has resulted in the loss of a valuable commodity worth approximately R628m per annum,” said the report.
Researchers believe the only way to protect the species from going extinct, and not lose the income legally fished abalone generates, is international collaboration to regulate its trade.
This includes listing it again in terms of the Convention on International Trade in Endangered Species of Wild Fauna and Flora (CITES).
CITES protects the global trade in endangered, threatened and at-risk species.
“That lack of regulation means that once abalone shipments have been smuggled out of South Africa to neighbouring countries, they can easily be laundered without fear of law enforcement action.”
According to the report, world imports of abalone outweigh legal production levels in southern Africa with the total mass of imports from 2000 to 2016 being 55 863 tonnes, while only 18 905 tonnes was legally produced over the same period.
Estimated traded volumes of illegally harvested abalone have steadily grown since 2008 and by 2016, the estimated mass of illegally harvested abalone reached 3 224 tonnes, contributing 64% of the total imports for that year.
TRAFFIC said that based on the average mass of individual abalone in each year provided by the Department of Agriculture, Forestry and Fisheries, this equates to over 9.5 million animals poached in 2016 – the highest annual figure for the 2000 to 2016 period.
An analysis of trade routes also suggested that up to 43% of the illegally harvested abalone was traded through a number of non-abalone-producing sub-Saharan African countries to Hong Kong Special Administrative Region between 2000 and 2016.
The in-transit and market states do not have legal provisions requiring traders to demonstrate that abalone products were fished legally.
“These are almost the highest if not the highest poaching levels we have seen in the last 20 or more years,” says TRAFFIC’s programme co-ordinator Markus Bürgener.
“This is not just a fisheries problem. Many other agencies need to get involved to address the problem holistically.
“Because of the involvement of organised crime, the apparent links to gangs in Cape Town, the links between the trade in abalone and the trade in drugs, there are also some clear negative socio-economic impacts associated with it. You have whole cohorts of people along the coast that are involved, and their work experience is only within an illicit economy.”