Poaching has almost wiped out abalone along South Africa’s coast, but a research project is showing a viable way to build a commercial farm and save wild populations – as well as provide jobs and economic growth.
The demand for abalone, or white gold, has devastated natural stocks of the delicacy along South Africa’s south and east coasts. In the Western Cape, overfishing and poaching are beginning to have the same effect on that region’s perlemoen, as abalone is known locally.
A new research study being conducted by a team from the universities of Fort Hare and Rhodes, as well as Nelson Mandela University and commercial fisheries, hopes to find ways to restock natural populations and produce abalone for the export market.
The team is headed by Professor Peter Britz of Rhodes, former head of the International Abalone Association. The project is looking at restoring natural stocks and researching the viability of abalone aquaculture projects.
It began in earnest in 2014, when rights were granted to black-owned fish company Ulwandle Fishing. Andrew Witte, researcher and doctoral candidate, explains: “The purpose of the rights and permits are to encourage the establishment and development of a sustainable fisheries industry as well as drive community upliftment and ensure the health and protection of reef systems along the South African coast.”
Preliminary research began two years earlier, however, when researchers assessed the habitat and population status of the abalone beds in Cape Recife, Port Elizabeth. They released abalone into research plots before the project’s 2014 start. As Witte explains, the plots grew into a commercial seeding pilot project. “The focus now is on the dispersion and migration of seeded abalone and the goal is the establishment of the first stages of a harvesting programme. More than 170 heavily poached and depleted plots along reefs in Port Elizabeth have been seeded with 30 tons of abalone, which translates into 1.7 million abalone.”
The commercial beds are protected by a private security company, the South African Police Service and a team from the Department of Agriculture, Forestry and Fisheries. In the short time the project has been running, says Witte, it has “reduced poaching and promotes sustainable resource use and benefits for coastal communities. The farm also employs more than 160 people.”
It is hoped that a sustainable fishery will grow the local economy and create jobs. Profitability of commercial aquaculture will depend on the survival, growth and migration of the stock being released, and this is the focus of the research.
Britz points out that 50% of the spats (baby perlemoen) released in the Cape Recife project have survived, “which shows it is a viable way to build a commercial farm and save wild populations. For farming to be profitable research is important.”
According to the UN’s Food and Agriculture Organization (FAO) aquaculture has the potential to contribute to economic activity, poverty reduction, empowerment and employment in South Africa’s coastal and inand communities.
The Cape Recife research is contributing to the restocking of collapsed abalone communities. It is also responsible for the growth of the area’s economy. In addition, it is increasing the number of marine researchers who will go on to make a difference in conservation and sustainability.
In 2014 alone, 1,115 metric tons of abalone was exported, mostly to China. A large percentage of this was poached. The economic value of this market led to the government, through its Operation Phakisa: Ocean Economy initiative, to fund the research.
Funding has been released through the Department of Trade and Industry’s flagship research and development fund, the Technology and Human Resources for Industry Programme (THRIP). The government believes that the ocean economy can contribute R177-billion to the gross domestic product and create one million jobs by 2033.
The South African abalone aquaculture industry is worth R355-million a year. South African abalone – Haliotis midae – is one of the three most sought-after species. Britz believes that about 3,000 tons of poached perlemoen has been shipped out of the country over the past few years. “Because of the demand, canned perlemoen from South Africa can be sold for top prices – $75-$105 a kilo (R986-R1,380) deshelled in cans.”
Thanks in part to the kind of research being done by the professor and his team, South Africa is reaping the benefits through a growing legal harvesting industry. “The result today is a buoyant perlemoen farming industry and a canned product which is selling like hot cakes, creating jobs in an area where they were haemorrhaging after the wild fishery had to be closed, and even raising the possibility of reseeding devastated reefs.”
Poaching is organised crime
A 2012 trial in Port Elizabeth revealed just how well organised and funded poaching syndicates were.
At the time, there were estimated to be up to 300 abalone divers in the Eastern Cape, and for most them poaching was their ony source of income. South African Defence intelligence put the number of people involved in poaching across the country at the time at 1,500, including drivers, lookouts and runners.
At the time, while availability was still high, divers could make up to R54,000 per expedition. It was not uncommon for boats to carry as many as 10 divers per trip, who averaged six dives per month. Rhodes researchers Britz and Dr Serge Raemaker estimated that there were at least 50 boats being used in poaching operations in the province.
In a report used by the prosecution, Raemaker and Britz interviewed poachers, conservationists and law enforcement and found that in 2005, syndicates spent R32-million on boats and 4x4s to begin the plunder of rich perlemoen fields discovered five years earlier.
The report concluded that Port Elizabeth’s perlemoen resources resulted in “a large illegal and highly organised network developed from the urban centre of Port Elizabeth systematically [targeting] perlemoen reefs across the entire Eastern Cape for transport inland and export to the Far East”.
The prosecutor in the case, Martin le Roux, told the court ahead of sentencing: “This is not a case about perlemoen; it is about organised crime. About racketeering.”
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