Bookshelf: Poacher

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


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).

Bookshelf: Between the Tides

Between the Tides: In Search of Sea Turtles – George Hughes

I have been late in coming to this book, which was published about five years ago. George Hughes is a world-renowned, South African turtle scientist whose work has done much to ensure protection for sea turtles in the southern Indian Ocean. He was the guest speaker at an event held at the Two Oceans Aquarium to celebrate the release of Yoshi, the loggerhead turtle who spent over 20 years at the aquarium and is now powering along the Namibian coastline in rude health.

Between the Tides
Between the Tides

Dr Hughes was CEO of the Natal Parks Board and then Ezemvelo KZN Wildlife, but Between the Tides relates his early career as a student looking for turtles along South Africa’s wild north east coast, in places that today support thriving dive and fishing charters. His legacy of turtle research continues.

Turtle surveys were conducted around Madagascar, the Comores, Reunion, the Seychelles, and on the Mozambique coast. The fact that the iSimangaliso Wetland Park now exists, offering a protected and well-regulated breeding environment for three species of turtles (loggerhead, leatherback and green – discovered there in 2014) is thanks to the early and persistent work of Dr Hughes and his colleagues. Turtles were first found nesting on this piece of coast in 1963, when it was still completely wild and mostly neglected by the authorities. In this book Dr Hughes recounts the development of the tagging program that he started, in which over 350,000 hatchlings were flipper tagged and/or marked over a period of 31 years.

Only about two out of every 1,000 hatchlings survive to return to the area in which they hatched, to breed. Female loggerheads are estimated to reach maturity around the age of 36 years, during which time they navigate an ocean of threats. This makes every surviving hatchling incredibly valuable.

The recovery of the number of loggerheads, in particular, has been quite spectacular, with more modest but noticeable gains in the leatherback population. More recently, as technology has allowed it, satellite tagging has shown their movements around the Indian ocean

If you find a baby sea turtle on the beach (this is the time of year when they start washing up), here is what you should do. The most important thing is to keep it dry, and to contact the aquarium as soon as possible.

Dr Hughes also discusses the sustainable use of sea turtles (for example, for food), something which I’d never thought about and which for that reason is fascinating – and very challenging to come at with an open mind, and appreciating the viewpoints of a scientist who has been steeped in turtle research for most of his life.  This is an excellent, proudly South African marine science book, written to be accessible even to those who aren’t turtle fanatics a priori. Highly recommended.

Get a copy of the book here (South Africa), here or here.

Bookshelf: Shrimp

Shrimp: The Endless Quest for Pink Gold – Jack & Anne Rudloe


Before reading this book it was important to determine the difference between shrimp (which we almost never talk about or eat in South Africa, except for little tins that go into paella when there’s not enough of anything else to make a full meal), and prawns (which are large, and frequently enjoyed). My meanderings around the internet revealed that “shrimp” and “prawn” are common names, not related to any scientific classification, and that by convention shrimp are often small and prawns are large… But it’s not clear cut and no one should be dogmatic about anything in this debate. What Americans call shrimp encompasses our prawns, as well as our tiny shrimps… Hence the term “jumbo shrimp”, which sounds nonsensical to me!

Shrimp capitalises on the popularity of nature books about a single species, often with one word titles, a boom initiated (I think) by Marc Kurlansky’s bestseller CodThe Rudloes are marine biologists and founded the Gulf Specimen Marine Laboratories together (Anne passed away in 2012). Jack Rudloe spent a lot of time on commercial fishing boats, and this book – like Trevor Corson’s book The Secret Life of Lobster – reveals how difficult it is for a writer to remain objective when confronted with the hard working, salt of the earth fisherman archetype.

Despite this, which bothered me slightly, this is a fascinating insight into everything you ever wanted to know about shrimp (slash prawns). Shrimp fisheries and farms worldwide are examined (with a focus on the American Gulf of Mexico fishery), and the dizzying variety of shrimps and prawns is elucidated in some detail. There are diagrams of their bodies, descriptions of their habitats, and details of how they are harvested. The book’s structure is difficult to discern, even chaotic, which throws off a disorganised reader like me (six books on the go, and often fragmentary reading times in elevators and in queues).

I did not find much information in this book about the impact of trawl fisheries, which include horrific bycatch and damage to the ocean floor that is so serious it can be seen from space. It was here that I felt Rudloe’s affinity with the fishermen who do this damage got in the way of a frank assessment of how bad it is. Prawn farming is also not environmentally neutral. The means by which we get prawns onto our plate are actually so bad that the decision whether to eat shrimp and prawns at all should be weighed very carefully.

You can get the book here if you’re in South Africa, and here if you’re not. If you want to read it on your Kindle, go here.

Bookshelf: Four Fish

Four Fish – Paul Greenberg

Four Fish
Four Fish

This is a big idea book – perhaps best to compare it to a TED talk, only more substantial. It is structured around four types of fish: salmon, tuna, sea bass and cod. The history of humans’ engagement with these archetypal families of fish enables Paul Greenberg to plot the trajectory of the possible futures we face, feeding ourselves from the ocean.

All four fish – salmon, tuna, sea bass and cod – have been fished to within a hair’s breadth of extinction. The story of cod is perhaps best known, from its original exploitation in the North Atlantic – beginning 1,000 years ago – to the catastrophic failure of the fisheries on the eastern seaboard of North America in the last several decades of the 20th century. Greenberg repeatedly cites and pays homage to Mark Kurlansky’s deceptively slim volume on the subject of cod (Cod), and to some extent this book capitalises on Cod‘s popularity.

Greenberg’s interest, however, is not primarily with the failure of the cod, tuna and salmon fisheries (largely as a result of failing to follow scientific advice in setting quotas – read: rampant greed). He is concerned more with the possibility of farming fish in a commercially viable, sustainable manner. There are lots of problems with fish farming, such as parasites and diseases spread from farmed fish to their wild counterparts, and Greenberg visits a number of aquaculture operations to discover whether sustainable practices that do not harm wild fish are possible.

Ultimately, Greenberg urges us to view fish as wildlife. As scuba divers we are accustomed to thinking about fish this way. We venture into their territory in order to experience them in the wild, and many of us feel outrage when certain types of fish (I have in mind sharks and perhaps tuna) are caught – albeit in perfectly legal fisheries. Greenberg wants us to extend this outrage, or at least recognition that fish are perhaps “the last wild food”, to all kinds of fish. The implications of thinking about fish this way would be that we eat less wild fish, saving it for special occasions, or do not eat it at all. (Perhaps, like Sylvia Earle, those of us who have the luxury of choice in the matter should stop eating fish entirely.) We have managed to execute this mind shift with whales in the last 100 years. The challenge is to extend it to the rest of the ocean’s finned inhabitants.

Greenberg suggests that the sustainable way for fisheries to continue into the future is for fishermen to assume the role of herders – custodians as well as harvesters of the fish. He further contends that we should not try to domesticate (farm) tuna, salmon and most other species that are already considered food fish. These fish have such a high feed conversion ratio (the number of kilograms of food – mostly comprising smaller fish – they need to eat to produce one kilogram of body weight) that farming them results in a net loss to the fish biomass in the ocean. Similarly, tuna ranching (capturing young tuna and raising them to maturity in pens) is also not a viable “farming” technique, as not only are wild fish being removed from the ocean, but they are denied the opportunity to breed. We need to start considering compliant, easily cultivated fish such as tilapia, kona kampachi (Almaco jack) and barramundi as menu options.

There’s a New York Times review of Four Fish here, and a Huffington Post review here. A Time Magazine story on fish also borrows heavily from Greenberg’s work.

You can get a copy of the book here if you’re in South Africa, otherwise here or here. If you have a SASSI card in your wallet or even the slightest concern about food security, personal ethics and ocean conservation, you ought to read this book.

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

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.


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.