The Ill Effects Of Abalone Poaching In South Africa

An abalone on the beach in South Africa.
An abalone on the beach in South Africa.

What Is Abalone?

The abalone species is considered a type of marine snail, or gastropod mollusk, that belongs to the family Haliotidae. The number of abalone species is not known exactly, although it has been estimated at somewhere between 30 and 130. Abalone shells have an oval shape that can be arched or flattened. This species is easily recognized by the row of open holes, which are respiratory pores, located along its outer edge. The inside of the shell is characterized by a thick layer of nacre, also known as mother-of-pearl. It has an iridescent sheen that changes colors depending on the angle viewed.

Abalone can be found in a variety of sizes, with the smallest species measuring .79 inches and the largest at 7.9 inches in length. Inside of its shell is the living organism. It has a large, soft body, known as a foot, that is anchored to the shell by the columellar muscle. The abalone uses its muscular foot body to attach itself to rocky outcroppings in shallow parts of the ocean. This species can be found all over the world, preferring the cold waters off the coasts of New Zealand, South Africa, Japan, Australia, and the Pacific coast of North America.

Human Use Of Abalone

Humans have used abalone as both a food source and decorative object for at least 75,000 years. Shells have been found in archaeological ruins from the Northern Channel Islands to the Blombos Caves of South Africa. Today, most of the abalone meat consumed comes from farm-raised animals, a practice that began in China and Japan between the late 1950’s and early 1960’s. Countries all over the world now practice abalone farming because wild populations have been significantly reduced due to overfishing and poaching. This article takes a closer look at the effects of illegal abalone poaching in South Africa specifically.

Harvest And Trade Of Abalone In South Africa

In South Africa, annual permits are required to harvest abalone. Use of scuba diving to locate this species for harvest is prohibited. Over the last several years, however, the government has not issued any abalone harvesting permits in an attempt to help restore wild populations. In 2007, the South African government listed this species as endangered according to the regulations of the Convention on International Trade in Endangered Species of Wild Fauna and Flora (CITES). This designation required member countries to monitor abalone trade, however, it was removed from the list in 2010. Trading abalone is now allowed by government regulation but requires export permits. Consumers in South Africa are prohibited from purchasing abalone meat in the local market.

Abalone Poaching In South Africa

One of the greatest instances of illegal abalone poaching in the world occurs in South Africa. This species, considered the most expensive shellfish in the world, is known locally as “white gold” due to its high value and pearl-like interior. The majority of this illegally poached meat is sold in Asian countries, where it is considered a delicacy. Demand for abalone meat has substantially increased over the last few years, creating an international export industry worth billions of dollars. The most desired abalone species is the Haliotis midae, which is the largest of its kind and found only along the coasts of South Africa.

Around 75 million abalone have been illegally fished from the waters of South Africa since 2001, 10 times more than the legal quota. According to nonprofits dedicated to preventing illegal trade of wildlife, approximately 3,477 tons of abalone were illegally removed from the water in 2015. The legal abalone harvest for the same year was only 105 tons.

Development Of Abalone Poaching In South Africa

Researchers believe the poaching industry first began during the post-Apartheid era of the 1990’s. As part of industry reforms, the government redistributed annual abalone quotes among fishing companies. During Apartheid, the vast majority of the quotas were given to white-owned companies. Post-Apartheid, abalone limits were taken from these larger companies and redistributed to the previously disadvantaged black-owned companies.

New fishing policies were applied to several sectors except the local traditional and artisanal fishers. These individuals, who had been harvesting abalone for generations, were excluded from the market. When the government refused to provide traditional abalone fishers with a larger quota based on a collective practice, the locals began to illegally collect this species. Then in 2007, the government reacted to drastically reduced wild abalone population numbers by decreasing the annual limit from 800 tons to 80 tons. Faced with losing their livelihood and only source of income, many individuals ignored the restriction and continued harvesting abalone.

Today, illegal abalone poaching has been taken over by criminal organizations. The local police force, known for high levels of corruption, accepts bribes from these syndicates to overlook the illegal fishing. Additionally, these criminal organizations recruit young individuals who are living in conditions of poverty and often pay in drugs, creating an addiction that can only be fulfilled by harvesting more abalone. This illegal trade is worth approximately $440 million annually.

Future Of Abalone In South Africa

If the illegal poaching of abalone continues in South Africa, experts believe this species could become extinct in as little as 10 years time. The absence of abalone in the marine ecosystem would be detrimental to the habitat. These species are ecologically important and their algae grazing behavior cleans the area, allowing for colonization and population growth of other species. They also serve as a food source for many larger marine animals.

Alternative To Illegal Abalone Poaching

The answer to reducing illegal poaching in South Africa is not necessarily tied to prosecuting illegal fishers and corrupt police. Instead, investing in commercial abalone farms may provide a safer and more environmentally sustainable economic opportunity for thousands of individuals. Training local abalone harvesters to raise, produce, and process quality abalone meat would provide a number of secure employment opportunities. In fact, commercially farmed abalone meat is worth significantly more than illegally poached abalone. At Abagold in South Africa, which is the largest abalone farm located on land and outside of China, dried abalone meat sells for $200 per pound, whereas illegal abalone meat sells for around $70 per pound.

South Africa could follow the example set by Japan, a country that has increased its wild abalone population by introducing commercially raised young abalone (called spat) to the local coastal areas. This has helped the wild population numbers grow and allows the country to sustainably harvest 5,000 tons of abalone each year. Critics, however, claim that this method reduces the levels of wild diversity.


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