Bookshelf: Poacher

Poacher: Confessions from the Abalone Underworld – Kimon de Greef and Shuhood Abader

Poacher
Poacher

Abalone (perlemoen to locals) are inoffensive, slow moving marine snails, with frilly grey bodies covered by a knobbly shell that doesn’t look like anything special until you find an empty one on the beach and see the mother of pearl interior, polished for years by the body of the now-dead snail. Some people like to eat them; in Asia, many people like to eat them, and they are seen as a status symbol. They are farmed, at enormous expense and for staggering profits, at several locations along South Africa’s coast. When we visited an abalone farm in Hermanus several years ago, the tour guide told us that the demand for abalone from the east is essentially “limitless”. You can imagine, if you don’t know already, the financial temptation that such a creature might present.

Kimon de Greef is a South African journalist with a longstanding interest in perlemoen poaching and other forms of illicit trade. His reporting on abalone poaching has been longstanding, nuanced and detailed – one example here, and another here. A 2014 report (pdf) he wrote for Traffic, the wildlife trade monitoring network, is also worth a read. The second author of Poacher, Shuhood Abader (not his real name), is a former abalone poacher, and this book is his story.

Rather than a focus on statistics and an analysis of the scale of the abalone poaching problem in South Africa and how to fix it, Poacher comes at the issue in a deeply personal way, thus forcing us out of our righteous outrage and into the uncomfortable space of empathy with someone whose actions we disapprove of. We hear Abader’s story in his own words, with context provided by de Greef’s reporting and analysis.

Being a South African today is complicated. Our history gives none of us a free pass to relax into ignorant bliss, simple judgments or two dimensional interpretations of where we find ourselves and where we are going as people and a country. Yes, it might seem tiring for those of us whose privilege is showing, but the last several hundred years of our history demands a reckoning and we ought to show up for that, no matter what it requires. This reckoning extends beyond hard conversations and simple matters of ensuring everyone access to healthcare, education, property, jobs, credit, public spaces, and the like. It extends even to nature reserves and marine protected areas, those spaces that we view as sacred and untouchable. (I remind you of this discussion we had on the Tsitsikamma MPA – similar complexities exist for many, if not all the wild spaces in South Africa.)

Marine poachers are fairly visible to the scuba diving community. (Recreational divers are even mistaken for them on occasion.) The ISS has published two in depth reports (Steinberg and Goga) on the subject, some years apart. Abalone poaching is one of those issues that seems to cause particular outrage among scuba divers and the ocean-loving community, and this is, to some extent, understandable. Poacher, however, asks us to set aside that outrage and to learn another side to the story. This may disturb your equilibrium – the more the idea of there even being “another side” troubles or enrages you, the more strongly I recommend you read this book.

When Poacher was released there was excellent media coverage, which you should check out to get a flavour of the topic, and the two authors. Examples are this Daily Maverick article, detailed coverage by The Guardian, and an interview with one of the authors here. You can even read extracts from the book at the Johannesburg Review of Books, on News24, at Wits University’s Africa-China reporting project, and at the Daily Maverick. There’s a radio interview with de Greef here.

Please read this book. Get a copy at your local bookstore, online in South Africa here, or on Amazon.

If you read this in time, Kimon de Greef is discussing the book on the evening Thursday 4 July 2019 at Kalk Bay Books – phone them for details and to RSVP (essential).

Newsletter: Enough is enough

Hi divers

Weekend dive plans

No diving

There is a week of strong north westerly wind planned for us… Added to this is a fair amount of swell. As a rule wind from this direction will turn False Bay in to a viz wonderland. Once the swell fades, of course! I have no dives planned for this weekend, but I expect conditions next week to be very good.

Diving humpback whale
Diving humpback whale

Octopus fishermen strike again

UNBELIEVABLY, the octopus fishery in False Bay caught and killed another whale this week. If you haven’t signed the petition yet, please do.

Please also send an email to our new minster of Environment, Forestry and Fisheries, Minister Barbara Creecy. She has solicited suggestions for environmental policies that will shape the future of South Africa to the email address DEAMedia@environment.gov.za, and I reckon this is a good place to start.

The City of Cape Town put out an outstanding press release this afternoon calling for an immediate moratorium on the whale – sorry, octopus – fishery, which I encourage you to read. It pulls no punches: “We cannot expect ratepayers to keep on subsidising the bycatch of whales.”

I suggest letting your ward councillors know that this is unacceptable, even more so in a marine protected area, and that you are behind the City’s call to the government to put a stop to the whaling.

You could also send a letter to Herman Oosthuizen, South Africa’s representative (“commissioner“) on the International Whaling Commission. Dig around here for his contact details (a postal address), or try the email address listed on this paper – click on Author Information just under the list of authors’ names. It goes without saying that you need to be polite, reasonable and respectful when you contact people, no matter how emotional this issue makes you.

Abalone poaching – read all about it

Kimon de Greef, author of the outstanding book Poacher along with Shuhood Abader (the pen name of a former perlemoen poacher), will be discussing the subject next Thursday evening, 4 July, at Kalk Bay books. It’s bound to be a very popular event and rsvp is essential. Details here. (We’re reviewing the book on the blog on Monday.)

regards

Tony Lindeque
076 817 1099
www.learntodivetoday.co.za
www.learntodivetoday.co.za/blog/

Diving is addictive!

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Newsletter: Are we there yet?

Hi divers

Weekend dive plans

TBC

Spring flowers in the Karoo
Spring flowers in the Karoo

Signs of spring are around: some flowers, some south easterly winds and a taste of southerly swell. However, the daytime maximum temperatures are not even close to my preferred number of 30 degrees celcius. This weekend I think diving will be best on Sunday but (thanks to a persistent dose of the flu) as yet I have not planned for anything. If you have some specific need then hit me up.

Open Book Festival

If you’re interested in the poaching of South Africa’s marine resources (as a challenging and topical issue, not as a personal hobby), there’s a talk on Sunday that you might find interesting. Kimon de Greef – author of several articles on abalone poaching, and a forthcoming book on the subject – will be in discussion with Max du Preez and Jeremy Vearey at the Open Book Festival. More information here.

regards

Tony Lindeque
076 817 1099
www.learntodivetoday.co.za
www.learntodivetoday.co.za/blog/

Diving is addictive!

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The illegal abalone trade in the Western Cape

The words “organised crime” don’t typically intrude into our privileged Capetonian lives (if you can afford to scuba dive recreationally, you’re privileged), but in reality there are networks operating on our doorstep, and many of our activities as scuba divers actually cause us to cross paths with these syndicates. Sometimes it is a very literal crossing of paths, and other times it’s simply sharing the same space as individuals who are advancing the interests of a criminal organisation.

Khalil Goga, a researcher who has been focused on organised crime since 2009, published a report on the Western Cape’s illegal abalone trade  for the Institute of Security Studies in August 2014. This paper can be seen as a companion to Jonny Steinberg’s 2005 ISS report on the illicit abalone trade in South Africa. While Steinberg’s paper deals with poaching’s socioeconomic and political origins and has a broad geographic focus within South Africa, Goga lays out the structure of poaching operations from harvesting the resource to its arrival in Asia, with special reference to the Hangberg community of Hout Bay.

Half sunken in Hout Bay harbour
Half sunken in Hout Bay harbour

The state of Hout Bay harbour – with corrupt or no access control, no checking of catches by Marine and Coastal Management or monitoring whether vessels are compliant with SAMSA regulations, and sunken ships at their berths – visually demonstrates how easy it is to base a poaching operation out of this location. The individuals who do the hard work of diving, driving, and carrying abalone over the mountain are drawn from the communities surrounding the harbour. Despite the involvement of these impoverished and sidelined communities, however,

The abalone trade has moved from largely being in the hands of a marginalised population to one that is ‘dominated by outside opportunists’. It has evolved from an informal activity by fishers into ‘a highly organised commercial fishery run by organised criminal syndicates’.

Read the complete ISS report here (PDF). It’s clear, easy to understand without glossing over the complexity of the issue, and absolutely fascinating. If you would rather read a shorter article on the abalone trade emanating from Hout Bay, you can try this M&G piece.

Who you gonna call (if you see a poacher)?

Anyone who has dived out of Hout Bay harbour, or spent time at Betty’s Bay or Pringle Bay, has probably seen abalone or rock lobster poachers in action. Miller’s Point is another hotspot for this kind of illegal activity – a poacher whose friends had deserted him once tried to sell his gear to Tony in exchange for some cash. We have called the police in Hout Bay about poachers on the slipway on more than one occasion, but they usually “don’t have transport”. (One can also identify with this lame excuse to some extent – it is not unheard of for poaching syndicates to threaten the families of local policemen and women.)

Poachers heading out from Hout Bay
Poachers heading out from Hout Bay

I still volunteer once a month (when my car is working properly) at the Two Oceans Aquarium in Cape Town. Tinus, the Operations Manager, recently shared details of who to contact when a poaching operation is observed. The aquarium sometimes gets calls about poaching from concerned members of the public, but there are direct routes to report it and you should use those. Tinus has agreed for me to share the information here – the wider the audience the better!

Should you ever witness a marine poaching operation in progress in the greater Cape Town area, or non-compliance with fishing regulations (number of fish, species, size, etc) this is the number to contact: 028 313 2703. This is the Green Scorpions’ 24 hour manned operation room situated in Hermanus where all calls are recorded, logged and acted upon. (The Green Scorpions website is currently offline. They are also known as the Environmental Management Inspectorate, EMI.)

Alternatively, or for environmental offences throughout the republic, whether marine or terrestrial, the 24 hour toll free number for the Environmental Management Inspectorate is 0800 205 005.

 During office hours, you can also contact the Green Scorpions on 021 402 3361, 021 402 3430 or 021 402 3506/16/25/29/33.

Hopefully you will not have to resort to this, but should the agencies above not respond as required by law, please contact the National Anti-Corruption Hotline for Public Service, 24 hours toll-free on 0800 701 701.

It would be nice if there was a similar number to report parties damaging and looting shipwrecks that are older than 60 years – does anyone know of one?

Article: M&G on perlemoen poaching in Hout Bay

The NSRI recently assisted the occupants of a 5.5 metre rubber duck (for scale, almost a metre shorter than Seahorse, which is rated for seven passengers and a skipper) when their single engine failed off Gansbaai. There were eleven divers on the boat, and it was 11.30 pm when they were rescued. The NSRI report of the incident specifically states that the divers were “recreational”, but it is highly likely that they were poachers, illegally harvesting abalone or possibly rock lobster.

The NSRI report was shared on a number of facebook pages maintained by members of the local scuba diving community (including ours). One comment thread in particular, in one of the groups where the report was shared, made me very sad. Multiple commenters suggested that the NSRI should have left the poachers out at sea to be eaten by sharks, and there was even distasteful speculation about the race of the men who were rescued. It’s very easy, on the Internet, to write that you think someone should be abandoned to die, or that they deserve it – but that doesn’t make it a right sentiment. The speed at which we get updates on social media make it easy for us to fail to engage with the nuances of events and situations, and rather to pass swift judgments and wish death on some mother’s child.

This is what the NSRI says about themselves:

Sea Rescue is the charity that saves lives on South African waters. Our crews put their lives at risk in order to save the life of a stranger.  They will voluntarily go to sea in the worst conditions, to help anyone in need.

Nothing there suggests that they will first pass judgment on the activity you’re engaged in, or on how wise you were to go out in such bad sea conditions, and then decide whether to assist or not!

This abalone is several years old
This abalone is several years old

Fisheries management in South Africa has been performed with aggressive incompetence for the past five or more years, with a focus – by the authorities – on personal enrichment and the fruits of corruption. (If you want to learn more about this, I suggest you read the whole of the Feike Management blog, and then start making serious plans to get off the grid, given that the former minister of fisheries is now brokering nuclear deals with that global pariah, Russia.) Management of our abalone stocks has been done on the basis of wishful thinking and illegality.

The communities whose young men choose poaching as a career are poverty-stricken and in many cases beneficiaries of laughably small quotas to catch stocks of fish that no longer exist. It is an economic choice for them, borne of desperation, and often the men who harvest the resource only get a fraction of the ultimate monetary value of the product. An article in the Mail & Guardian by Kimon de Greef, who studied abalone poaching for a Masters degree in conservation biology, explains the economics of the process:

He explained his poaching work as we sat amid the plants and the Rasta, whose name was John, continued preparing his spliff. David told me he skippered a boat for a white diver who had relocated to Hout Bay to target reefs on the Cape Peninsula. Another local diver – whom by chance I’d already interviewed – worked with them, as well as a bootsman, or deck assistant.

The divers paid David R20 a kilogram of perlemoen they harvested; the bootsman earned half as much. The divers also hired carriers to run their catch to middlemen in the community, who paid prices of between R200 and R250 a kilogram. These middlemen sold the product on to buyers from larger criminal syndicates, who ultimately controlled the illicit trade to the Far East.

On a good night, after expenses, the two divers could earn R10 000 each, with David taking home R4  000.

As scuba divers, we tend to see this issue quite simply: someone is illegally taking beautiful, unique creatures out of the ocean! We forget that the communities engaged in these activities are far less privileged than we are, and that this is a complicated, historically fraught issue that won’t be solved by leaving a boatload of poachers to be swept out to sea in the dark of night.

I suggest you read de Greef’s article. It humanises the poachers – puts faces on them – and helps to tease out some of the more complex issues at play regarding this valuable marine resource. Johnny Steinberg did a comprehensive and more detailed review of the illicit abalone trade some years ago, which is a longer read if you’ve got time.

Read the M&G article here.

Bookshelf: The Death and Life of Monterey Bay

The Death and Life of Monterey Bay
The Death and Life of Monterey Bay

I had high hopes for The Death and Life of Monterey Bay, for reasons that will be revealed (I hope) in the course of the next few years. Monterey Bay is in California, and opens onto the Pacific Ocean. It has approximately the same surface area as False Bay but is shallower and less square. Filled with diverse marine life, it was formerly bounded by a row of sardine canneries (setting for John Steinbeck’s novel Cannery Row) which were responsible for massive pollution in the area. Tons of stinking sardine guts fouled up the bay, which had been stripped of much of its marine life by aggressive fishing practices and cascading effects in the ecosystem.

In 1892 the Hopkins Marine Station was founded, a research laboratory of Stanford University. In 1931, the area of ocean in front of the lab was designated the Hopkins Marine Life Refuge (now Reserve). The bay’s populations of abalone, sea otters, killer whales, kelp forests, whales, and other life gradually recovered, and the sea urchin barrens were overgrown and once again supported a variety of life.

In this book Palumbi and Sotka trace the decline and recovery of the bay, lingering on colourful local characters such as Monterey mayor Julia Platt, whose no-nonsense attitude ensured access to the ocean for all the residents of the area. I expected the book to be more about marine biology, with information about how the various species recovered in the ecosystem once the polluting and overfishing forces were removed, but it is definitely more of a human history, with a strong focus on Platt, John Steinbeck, and his friend Ed Ricketts, with whom he travelled to the Sea of Cortez.

The establishment of the Monterey Bay Aquarium on Cannery Row effectively redeemed an area that was the source of seemingly limitless pollution. The aquarium was opened in 1984 after years of planning. It is a sister aquarium to Cape Town’s Two Oceans Aquarium, and also has the distinction of being the first aquarium to attempt to exhibit a (juvenile) great white shark, an enterprise that (fortunately) seems doomed to failure.

There’s an excellent article on Palumbi and the book here.

Here’s Stephen Palumbi giving a TEDx talk on how Monterey Bay came back to life:

You can get the book here if you’re in South Africa, otherwise here or here.

Bookshelf: The Story of Sushi

The Story of Sushi: An Unlikely Saga of Raw Fish and Rice – Trevor Corson

The Story of Sushi
The Story of Sushi

I didn’t really know what to expect from this book – I admit that I tried it out because it had a fish on the cover, and because I’d previously enjoyed Trevor Corson’s The Secret Life of Lobsters. I was pleasantly surprised. Showing the same narrative flair as he exhibits in his lobster book, Corson interweaves science and history with a present-day story with novel-like characteristics.

Formerly titled The Zen of FishThe Story of Sushi takes place at the California Sushi Academy, tracing a (real and) diverse group of students as they spend several months learning to be sushi chefs. The principal character, the weakest student in the class, is squeamish about handling raw fish, and scared of her sushi knives – one wonders if she had done any research about what being a sushi chef entails. Despite this drag on the overall mood of the classroom scenes (one can only read about someone being berated for their incompetence, or deliberately shirking tasks that they find unappealing, so many times) Corson manages to invest the reader in the lives of the chefs and students that he profiles. As the students learn about sushi, so do we.

The history parts of the book deal with the development of sushi as a cultural and culinary phenomenon, first in Japan and then spreading to the rest of the world. Corson also delves into food science, explaining why things taste the way they do, and the microbial processes that give us vinegar and other fermented foods (essential in the development and preparation of sushi), and marine biology. Make no mistake – bluefin tuna, abalone, urchins, eels and octopus play only bit parts in this book, and appear more frequently as sushi toppings than as vibrant life forms populating the world’s oceans. Corson talks about the biology of the animals only insofar as it enables development of his main – food related – themes.

I found this a surprisingly good read, and a helpful informer on the subject of an aspect of Japanese culture other than their well known penchant for whale hunting and general disingenuousness around ethical fishing practices. It has made me a more informed sushi consumer but not as regards what fish are best to eat (use SASSI for that). There is hardly a mention of whether one can ethically consume all sushi toppings with gay abandon, or whether the environmentally conscious consumer should think twice about eating certain seafoods. I do feel that I have more understanding of the construction and serving of sushi, and am able to watch the chefs at my local sushi bar with a bit more awareness.

There’s a New York Times review (and another book recommendation).

You can get a copy of the book here if you’re in South Africa, otherwise here or here.

A Day on the Bay: Running in the motors

Date: 6 April 2014

Team Aquaventures on board ready to roll
Team Aquaventures on board ready to roll

One Sunday in early April, Tony did a very early launch for an Aquaventures PADI IDC, taking the divers to the wreck of the BOS 400 and to dive with seals at Duiker Island in Hout Bay. You can see in the photo above that the sun hasn’t even reached Maori Bay as the divers kit up! The visibility on the BOS 400 was about six metres, and it was about eight metres at Duiker Island. At the wrecks inside Hout Bay (the Aster and Katsu Maru), there were reports of visibility of up to 15 metres.

After the early launch, Tony and I took the boat for a drive south towards Cape Point. We weren’t in a rush, partly because we needed to run in the boat’s motors gently, and so we stopped to look at the scenery.

Chapmans Peak drive
Chapmans Peak drive

Chapman’s Peak Drive is carved out of the mountainside at the intersection of the Cape granite and sedimentary layers (geologists love this fact), and this can be seen clearly in areas where the mountain isn’t highly vegetated (such in as the photo above). Tony showed me a strange “door in the cliff” – a neat rectangular opening (it seems) that looks like it should be in The Hobbit. You can’t approach it closely on a boat because there’s foul ground in front of it, and the sea is turbulent even when there’s not much swell.

Sea spray on Long Beach, Noordhoek
Sea spray on Long Beach, Noordhoek

Long Beach is long. There were lovely big waves, with spray unfurling from their tops in the light breeze. We could see horse riders on the beach, surfers in the swell, and at one point right across False Bay to the Hottentots Holland and Hangklip. Further down, the boiler of the Kakapo shipwreck was clearly visible on the sand.

Idle near a small kelp forest off Long Beach, Kommetjie
Idle near a small kelp forest off Long Beach, Kommetjie

Slangkop lighthouse (pardon the blurry photo) is being painted, it seems – the building is completely clad in scaffolding. This was our turning around point, but first we had coffee and a snack. Boating makes you hungry!

Slangkop lighthouse getting a facelift
Slangkop lighthouse getting a facelift

On the way back we stopped a few times to look around (Tony was looking for a whale shark, after NSRI report from St Helena Bay the previous day, and unconfirmed sightings of one in Kommetjie) and dangle our (ok, my) feet in the freezing water. There was an offshore wind blowing. In places the air was freezing cold, and in others the hot wind, smelling strongly of fynbos, made everything wonderfully pleasant.

We took a drive across the mouth of Hout Bay to Duiker Island, where the water looked quite clean. There were snorkelers in the water with the seals. I drove us back from the island (slowly) – I don’t have a skippers licence yet, and in order to get one I need (supervised) hours on the boat. So this was practice.

Once inside Hout Bay harbour, we milled around a bit waiting for the slipway to clear (some poachers were launching, amongst other activity). We came across the Seal Alert boat, which has sunk into disrepair but is a very enjoyable resting spot for some of the local seals. There are also a few boats that have sunk at their moorings – apparently because their drain plugs were stolen.

The middle (bright green) ship in the picture of the fishing vessels moored in the harbour in the above gallery of images, is the sister ship of a ship that ran aground off Betty’s Bay in February, breaking up and spilling huge amounts of fuel near the vulnerable penguin colony.

Newsletter: Registration required

Hi divers

Weekend diving

Friday: Shore dives at Long Beach or pool sessions

Saturday: To be confirmed based on Friday’s conditions

Sunday: Boat dives to Photographer’s Reef and Ark Rock from False Bay Yacht Club

Text or email me if you want to dive.

The BOS 400 looking majestic
The BOS 400 looking majestic

Dive report

We had really good conditions last weekend and launched from Hout Bay on both Saturday and Sunday with 15-20 metre viz. The water was a little cold, 11 degrees on most computers and 9 degrees on others. We have also dived Long Beach this week and had nice conditions.

Today has been relatively calm in False Bay but right now there is a 6 metre swell with a 20 second period rolling in that will have some effect on the Bay for the weekend. It is meant to drop off by Friday, back down to around 3 metres, but the period remains high at around 14 seconds so it will be surgy.

On the boat last Saturday
On the boat last Saturday

Dive plans

Saturday and Sunday do look a lot better with Sunday being the best of all, however weather forecasts on a Wednesday are notoriously inaccurate and all too often the forecast changes dramatically overnight.

My weekend plan is therefore as follows: On Friday we will do shore dives or pool sessions. Regarding Saturday we will decide on Friday, and on Sunday we will launch very early from False Bay Yacht Club and dive Photographer’s Reef and Ark Rock.

Diving ban in Betty’s Bay

There is a plan to possibly ban diving in Betty’s Bay. The reasons is because the government is unable and unwilling to police the area in order to rein in the abalone and lobster poaching, so they are proposing to ban everyone and everything. The only thing is it will not stop poaching – it will in fact make it easier to fish illegally as there will be no one watching. You can read more about it on Indigo Scuba’s blog. Please take the time to register as an interested and affected party, and submit an objection using the template provided (or your own words).

If you think this sounds far fetched, remember that there is already a ban on diving in an area in False Bay close to Cape Point for the very same reason. It sets a disturbing precedent that could one day seriously hinder our freedom to enjoy the beautiful ocean on our doorstep.

Things to remember

There is a DAN Day on 17 May – let me know if you want more information. These are always informative events that also allow you a behind the scenes look at facilities you wouldn’t otherwise get to visit.

Please remember that if you book a boat dive, you need to cancel before 16h00 the day before otherwise you will be billed for the dive. Also, make sure your MPA permit is up to date! You can get one at your nearest post office for about R100 – just take your ID along and ask for a scuba diving permit.

A good tip for all divers: never go deeper than the bottom.

regards

Tony Lindeque
076 817 1099
www.learntodivetoday.co.za
www.learntodivetoday.co.za/blog/

Diving is addictive!

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