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).

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, 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.)


Tony Lindeque
076 817 1099

Diving is addictive!

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Newsletter: Are we there yet?

Hi divers

Weekend dive plans


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.


Tony Lindeque
076 817 1099

Diving is addictive!

To subscribe to receive this newsletter by email, use the form on this page!

Bookshelf: Rescue Warriors

Rescue Warriors: The US Coastguard, America’s Forgotten Heroes – David Helvarg

Rescue Warriors
Rescue Warriors

Much of this book reads like one of the Reader’s Digest “drama in real life” stories that I used to devour from the magazines that my granny brought us when she came to visit. (She’d also bring a packet of Sparkles or Cadbury Eclairs.)

Journalist, activist and former war correspondent David Helvarg (who also wrote Saved by the Sea and 50 Ways to Save the Ocean) spent two years embedded with various branches of the US Coastguard in order to experience their work.

I had naively thought that the US Coastguard, despite being funded by the government, and despite their website having a .mil for military domain name, was just a slightly larger, more financially flush version of South Africa’s National Sea Rescue Institute (NSRI).

I was wrong. The mandate of the US Coastguard is to enforce maritime law (this is its primary difference from the NSRI) as well as to perform search and rescue operations. Viewers of the Deadliest Catch series will be familiar with the rescue work of the Coastguard in extremely challenging conditions. As a result of its law-enforcement mission, the Coastguard uses weapons and provides a lot more military-style training than you’d expect from a pure rescue operation. The Coastguard falls under the department of homeland security and operates cutters (with guns), icebreakers, small boats, helicopters, and other aircraft.

Helvarg’s conservationist tendencies shine through in several parts of Rescue Warriors, and he does not shy away from confronting the aspects of the Coastguard that he finds problematic. His contention is that the Coastguard receives far less publicity than it deserves. This book goes some way towards bringing attention to the individuals who have saved tens of thousands of people during Hurricane Katrina, via water evacuation during the September 11 attacks, and in countless other less well-known emergency situations.

This is a gripping read which I thoroughly enjoyed. I was amazed by the amount of funding and equipment that the Coastguard has at its disposal compared to the NSRI, even though the organisation is actually badly underfunded, especially when considered relative to the rest of the United States war machine. I was also impressed by the egalitarian approach that draws many women to join the Coastguard and enables them to rise in its ranks. The Coastguard made all its jobs available to women in 1977, something which other branches of the military have not yet done.

You can get a copy of the book here (South Africa), here or here.

Article: The Guardian on a bungled tuna fishing IPO

Here’s a rare intersection of something tangentially related to my job, and this blog. An IPO, or initial public offering, is when a privately owned company lists its shares on a stock exchange. It is a capital raising exercise: shareholders pay for part-ownership in the company, and will usually expect to receive a portion of the company’s future earnings in the form of dividends. Shares in the company will trade publicly on whatever stock exchange the company has listed on. The firm receives a cash injection from the shareholders when it lists, and can use this to expand, or for other capital-intensive projects.

China Tuna Industry Group, a tuna fishing company, attempted to list on the Hong Kong stock exchange last June. The firm targets bigeye and yellowfin tuna, which are IUCN redlisted as vulnerable and near threatened respectively. In its prospectus – a document meant to entice investors to sign up to purchase shares in the IPO – the company states that it can catch more tuna than quotas allow, because there is no enforcement of catch limits. As the excellent Guardian article on the IPO states (emphasis mine):

In a series of circular arguments, the document stated that China, which presides over the world’s largest long-distance fishing fleet, would not crack down on companies engaged in illegal fishing because it never had in the past; that the catch limits set by the Regional Fisheries Management Organizations apply only to China the country, not to actual Chinese fishing boats; and that even if the catch limits did apply, the regional fisheries organizations would not enforce them because “there is no sanction for non-compliance with Bigeye catch limits.”

The IPO was cancelled because of negative publicity, which escalated when Greenpeace got involved. The Chinese government and the investment bank handling the IPO (shame on them) were, respectively, amazed (sure) and silent on the subject.

Read the Guardian article here. It’s an revealing journey through the legal loopholes, apathy, and big money that characterise so much of what is wrong with global fisheries, and China’s in particular.

Article: Wired on using satellites to monitor illegal fishing

An article on reveals a bold plan to detect illegal fishing activity using satellite moitoring of AIS data of large ships at sea, and some clever algorithms to narrow down the data to ships (other than those registered as such) that are most likely fishing vessels. The project is called Global Fishing Watch, and has excellent potential as a tool provided that someone – anyone – will act on the information it provides. The project is a partnership between technology giant Google (via their Earth Outreach program), conservation organisation Oceana, and SkyTruth, which provides remote sensing technology for conservation purposes.


The perpetrators of a large amount of illegal, unreported and unregulated (IUU) fishing are developed nations – ships from Spain, Russia, Japan, and China are regular offenders. Much of the IUU fishing takes place in the waters of developing nations – because they are poorly patrolled and still contain fish to harvest. Monitoring activity on the high seas purely by means of patrol vessels is next to impossible, which is why a tool that is technology based is an exciting addition to conservationists’ arsenal. It is hoped that in the future the tool will be available via a web interface, to anyone who cares to view it.

Read the Wired article here, and find out more on the Global Fishing Watch website.

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.

Bookshelf: Ocean of Life

Ocean of Life – Callum Roberts

Ocean of Life
Ocean of Life

This book is both deeply alarming and relentlessly optimistic. Its author, Callum Roberts, is a professor of marine conservation. He is able to see with clear eyes the damage that we have done to the world’s oceans, but also believes that science has the tools at hand to halt the decline. His optimism is not shared by all of his scientific colleagues, but it makes it bearable to read books like this and gives one a sense that it is still possible to be a positive force for the sea as a private individual. Despite the deliberate tone of optimism and hope, Ocean of Life is a very frightening book.

Roberts’s prior book was of The Unnatural History of the Sea, which explained the extent to which, over the last 1,000 years, humans have been modifying ocean ecosystems by harvesting marine life – to excess. I found it devastating. This book is concerned with other ways in which humans have been tinkering with the sea in addition to overfishing, including but not limited to climate change, industrial pollution, plastic debris, and noise from ships and from other human activities. Huge dead zones from fertiliser runoff and ocean acidification make some parts of the sea an outright hostile place to life.

Not only have we removed countless animals from the sea and added pollutants, but we have also adjusted ocean currents and moved species from one location to others – the lionfish invasion of the Atlantic is an example. Roberts lauds the efforts by recreational divers to control the invasion that are portrayed in Carl Safina’s Saving the Ocean series, but admits that they are ultimately futile except on individual reefs, and lionfish are in the Atlantic for the long haul.

Unlike Paul Greenberg, Roberts believes that initiatives such as SASSI, which encourage consumers to make sustainable seafood choices when shopping and eating out, have value, and he encourages the conservation-minded reader to explore them. He also provides a long list of excellent marine conservation organisations which one can support financially in order to make a difference to the decline of the oceans; he has worked with all of the ones he lists except for Sea Shepherd, and I’d suggest you support those. With the shambles of poseurs mixed in with legitimate conservation organisations, it is sometimes hard for the public to discern who’s a charlatan only interested in raising their own profile, and who’s actually spending the donated funds on conservation strategies that effect change. I’d love to see some guidance on this from a South African perspective – the ratio of fluff to substance here seems very high!

There are excellent reviews of Ocean of Life by the Telegraph, the Guardian, and the Independent. The Economist has an interview with Roberts online, too.

You can get a copy here and here (for overseas readers) or here and here (if you’re in South Africa). The book has appeared under the titles Ocean of Life (in the UK, I suspect) and The Ocean of Life (in the US).

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.