• Article: Jonny Steinberg on the illicit abalone trade in South Africa

    • 20 November 2012
    • Published by

    South African writer and scholar Jonny Steinberg wrote one of my favourite books, The Number, which should be required reading for every Capetonian. He has written several other books and is a scrupulous and thorough researcher with a wonderfully readable writing style. He also does not shy away from complexity, refusing to settle for simple and expedient explanations.

    Imagine my delight when I discovered – purely by accident – that he wrote a 2005 paper about the illicit abalone trade for the Institute of Security Studies, a policy think-tank focused on Africa, and concerned with all aspects of human security (more information here).

    Steinberg identifies four factors which caused the tremendous growth in the abalone poaching industry in the early 1990′s, as South Africa became a democracy:

    • The rand-US dollar exchange rate weakened from R2.55 at the end of 1990, to R11.99 by the end of 2001. This made exports of US dollar-denominated commodities (with cost of production in rands) an extremely lucrative way to make money.
    • An efficient Chinese organised crime presence had already existed in South Africa for many years.
    • South Africa has notoriously poor border controls and porous borders.
    • The changing political situation had a significant impact on the coloured fishing communities along the coastline.

    Steinberg identifes the fourth factor as the most important one. He says this:

    The transition to democracy carried with it a universal expectation that access to the sea ought to open up quickly and dramatically. To make the politics of the moment more complicated, many members of coastal coloured communities were deeply suspicious of the recently unbanned ANC. Come South Africa’s first
    democratic election in April 1994, the coloured working class would vote overwhelmingly for the ruling party of the apartheid era, the National Party, in the hope that it would provide a bulwark against their fears of an African majority government.

    It was a potent combination: on the one hand the expectation that democracy ought to be coupled with the speedy implementation of a just fishing regime; on the other, a deeply held suspicion that the new government would betray the coloured working class. This cocktail of expectations and fears could not have been more propitious for abalone poaching. The resource was lying there in the sea and growing more lucrative by the day. Given the politics of the moment, a great many people who had lived their lives on the coastline believed that they were entitled to it, and to a share of the benefits that accrued from harvesting it.

    Compare the sentiments described above (“people who had lived their lives on the coastline believed that they were entitled to it, and to a share of the benefits that accrued from harvesting it”) to those expressed by the poacher whom Tony described meeting. It’s very hard to argue against this viewpoint.

    Abalone on the slipway at Miller's Point

    Abalone on the slipway at Miller’s Point

    Last year 7 tons of South African abalone left our shores. One ton of it was legally produced (farmed, with about 150kg harvested from the sea), and the rest was poached. The technicalities of poaching are surprisingly straightforward, for various reasons. Here is one – the nature of abalone itself:

    Abalone can be dried, preserved for months or years, and then rehydrated and returned to its natural state. This is crucial to the smuggling process for several reasons. First, live or frozen abalone has a pungent and distinctive smell and is thus difficult to transport or ship undetected. Dried abalone can also be disguised as another product, particularly when border and law enforcement officials have not been trained to recognise it. Second, dried abalone can be preserved indefinitely, which means that it can be gathered over long periods and shipped in bulk. Finally, dried abalone shrinks to about a tenth of its original mass, making it possible store and ship very large consignments.

    Dried abalone looks nothing like fresh abalone, and in some cases DNA tests are required to establish what it is. Some of the exported abalone is bartered for drugs, or the ingredients to manufacture them (tik being an obvious example), from the east.

    It is clear that this is a problem that does not have a simple solution. However, I don’t believe that the entire subject should be brushed under the carpet by the recreational dive industry because it’s hard to deal with and creates an uncomfortable conflict of interest between the desire to protect our marine environment and the desire to make money selling gear and filling cylinders for poachers. I don’t know – at all – how to address the problem, because refusing to serve someone at a dive shop because you suspect they’re engaged in illegal activity isn’t practical or, necessarily, moral. It could also be personally dangerous. Does anyone have any thoughts or suggestions?

    Here is a link to the full text of the paper on the Institute of Security Studies website. It’s horribly hard to read because of the formatting, so you might want to download the pdf from here.

    Footnote:

    Steinberg mentions that at the time of his writing (2005), the South African government was considering listing abalone in the CITES agreement. CITES, which stands for “Convention on International Trade in Endangered Species of Wild Fauna and Flora”, is an international agreement that requires that certain species must be accompanied by special documentation when are moved across international borders. Rhino horn, some sharks, and seahorses are other examples of animals and animal products subject to CITES.

    In 2007, the South African government did in fact go ahead with the CITES listing. There is more information on that decision and the extent of the poaching problem here.

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