JOHANNESBURG – Poverty and crime in South Africa are driving a surge in the illegal harvesting off its shores of the abalone, a large sea snail coveted as a delicacy in some parts of Asia, a report said on Tuesday.
The report, by TRAFFIC, a wildlife trade monitoring network, found that the region’s abalone population is on the verge of collapse, with an estimated 96 million abalone illegally harvested between 2000 and 2016.
Only around a third of the abalone taken from southern African waters is legal, the report said.
Most affected the once-abalone rich Atlantic waters of South Africa’s Western Cape province, where chronic poverty and joblessness drive mostly young men to risk shark attack and take the dive in search of the gourmet mollusc.
“Driven by sophisticated transnational criminal networks and local gangs, the illegal abalone trade has been fueled by deeply entrenched socio-economic disparities in the Western Cape, bitterly contested fishing quotas, drugs, and gang violence,” the report says.
In 2016 alone, the value of the illegal abalone trade was estimated at $57 million. There are several species of abalone but the one commercially harvested in South Africa is the South African abalone or Haliotis midae.
About 90 percent of South Africa’s abalone is destined for upscale restaurants in Hong Kong.
Known locally as perlemoen, abalone plays an important ecological role. According to the South African National Biodiversity Institute, the species helps to keep coastal waters clean by feeding on seaweed and floating weeds.
The TRAFFIC report recommends that the species be given a listing under CITES, the U.N. convention that regulates the global trade in at-risk wild flora and fauna – not least because there are almost no regulations outside of South Africa to control the trade.
“All you have to do is get it out of South Africa and Namibia, you are home free, there are no regulatory obstacles to the trade,” Julian Rademeyer, one of the report’s authors, told Reuters.
This point is thrown into sharp relief by the fact that abalone-exporting countries include land-locked Zimbabwe and Zambia.