Perlemoen pillaged

By Sue Matthews. Published in African Wildlife Vol 53. No 3 (1999)

Kicking slowly through the underwater forest of kelp, Rob Tarr seems oblivious to the inquisitive fish crowding in on him, and the small pajama shark that scoots off in fright at the sound of his hoarse breathing. He swims close to the rocky sea bed, barely deviating from a straight line, but pausing here and there to part swaying seaweeds or waft away a scattering of sand.

Rob, a marine biologist from Sea Fisheries, is searching for abalone, also known as perlemoen, as part of an annual transect survey to assess the status of the resource. On this occasion, it's like looking for a needle in a haystack. Despite the fact that Rob is diving in Hawston, the area that is the natural center of distribution of the abalone Haliotis midae, he surfaces to discover that the sum total found by his team along seven transect lines is only eleven animals. The news is like the death knell of the Hawston resource.

Back in his office a few months later, Rob explains why.

"The 1998 figure translates to a density of less than one abalone per ten square meters, more than five times lower than it was before poaching took its toll. The critical density for reproduction has probably been passed – these animals are broadcast spawners, but now they are too scattered for fertilisation to be successful. So even if all the poaching ceases tomorrow, the Hawston stock will in all likelihood not be able to recover."

Besides, most of the abalone taken out by poachers are below the legal size limit, which means they are being removed before they have had a chance to breed. Of the 60 000 abalone analyzed by Rob's team over the last three years from poachers' confiscated hauls, 55 percent were under the legal minimum size.

"That's only the average though," reminds Rob. "Some hauls are made up almost entirely of sub-legal animals. For example, a sample we took from a confiscated haul of 4092 abalone revealed that 90 percent were undersized, with more than a third of them only three years old – abalone only reach sexual maturity at the age of seven."

The commercial abalone fishery has been hard hit by the rampant poaching in the Hawston area. Each year a Total Allowable Catch, or TAC, is set for the six commercial zones on the south-western Cape coast. As recently as 1996 the TAC for Zone C, the area from Hawston to Hermanus, was 130 tons. This year it is down to 15 tons.

The poachers too are feeling the effects of their overexploitation. Having mined out all the larger animals, they now have to move to other areas, where abalone are still abundant.

This is part of the reason for the recent invasion of poachers at Schoenmakerskop, outside Port Elizabeth. Being near the edge of the abalone's distribution range, the stocks here are small and patchy, and were never considered viable for a commercial fishery. But Sea Fisheries recently responded to repeated calls to allow an experimental fishery in the Eastern Cape by inviting applications for quotas for the area.

"The poachers obviously decided to go in and clean out the abalone before others got a shot at them," says Rob. "Now they've denuded the stocks to such an extent that it's even more unlikely that they could sustain a commercial fishery of any kind."

The brazen behaviour of the poachers, who dived out bags of abalone in broad daylight and threatened anybody who tried to intervene, outraged local residents. In December a large group picketed outside police headquarters in Port Elizabeth and later marched through the village of Schoenmakerskop in protest.

Unfortunately, however good their intentions, the Schoenies abalone may be beyond saving. But action by local communities can make a difference.

A little way along the coast from Hawston, in the small settlement at Betty's Bay, a voluntary organisation of retired and weekend residents is stemming the tide of poaching.

"If it weren't for Sea Watch, Betty's Bay would probably have been cleaned out by now," says Rob. "These volunteers are acting as the eyes and ears of the inspectors and police, tipping them off about suspicious activity as well as playing a valuable educational role, raising public awareness about poaching. Our own Sea Fisheries inspectors were completely swamped – they are seriously understaffed, and with the best will in the world they couldn't cope. But now they feel like they have somebody on their side, which is a great morale booster."

An even more important ally is the South African Police Service, which has finally demonstrated its commitment to the fight against poaching with the launch of Operation Neptune. Covering the area from Rooi Els to Agulhas, the initiative is already showing results, although it was only started in mid-February.

"The level of poaching in the area has definitely decreased a lot since the start of Operation Neptune," says Rob. "The police are maintaining a visible presence, with regular patrols and inspection points. Everything has gone quiet in the Hermanus-Hawston area, although it may just mean that the poachers are focussing on other areas."

So why has it taken this long for the South African Police Services to leap into the fray? Perhaps the officers on the ground have finally managed to convince the powers that be that abalone poaching is not just an environmental issue. There is indisputable evidence that it is part of an organised crime syndicate, with links to the drug trade and the Cape Flats gangs.

Rob believes that the new Marine Living Resources Act, which mandates the transformation of the fishing industry, also had a lot to do with it.

"Now that everybody has a fair opportunity at getting access to the abalone resource, there is no moral justification for poaching," he explains.

In other words, while in recent years it may not have been politically correct to arrest poachers who had been denied access to the abalone fishery under the apartheid regime, those continuing to poach are viewed as common criminals now that the playing field has been leveled.

A massive upheaval has been taking place in the fishing industry because of the restructuring needed to include previously disadvantaged new entrants. In the abalone industry the slate was wiped clean, so nobody was discriminated against on the basis of past poaching activity, and new entrants were selected on the merits of their applications. More than 40 so-called informal fishermen are represented in Hawston Vissersmaatskappy, which was awarded a quota of 5,6 ton.

But the poaching is unlikely to stop. Abalone fetches exorbitant prices in the Far East – about R600 per kg according to the current exchange rate – so it is an irresistible temptation to many poor fishermen. And even those who have been given access may find that they have such a small slice of the pie that they could earn far more from poaching, unrestrained by quotas, size limits and protected areas.

"You will never get rid of the incentive to poach," says Rob. "There is just not enough abalone to go round for everybody who wants access to the resource, so there will always be people who will take it any way they can."

Many of the unsuccessful applicants also claim that they will continue poaching because the system of quota allocation is corrupt and unlawful, giving no incentive to reform from their own illegal activities. Even with the removal of the old Quota Board and the establishment of new structures such as the Fisheries Transformation Council, such accusations continue to fly. The premier of the Western Cape, George Meiring, recently asked Minister of Environmental Affairs Pallo Jordan to initiate a full-scale investigation into nepotism in the allocation process, although this may well just be politicking in the run-up to the elections.

Clearly, there are losers on all sides – the thousands of hopefuls who still haven't gained access to fisheries, the new entrants whose high expectations are unlikely to be filled, and the old quota-holders who have had their quota reduced or removed to pave the way for new entrants.

It is just such a situation in the rock lobster fishery that has caused chaos in the entire fishing industry since the beginning of the year. The South African Commercial Fishermen's Corporation, a holding company made up of informal fishermen, received the largest rock lobster quota of 130 ton, while all previous quota-holders had their quota reduced by 25 percent, or lost out altogether. A High Court challenge by one of these quota-holders was won on the basis that the Minister contravened the new Act, which stipulates that he should be guided by existing principles of quota allocation for a transition period of six months. Justice Thring's judgement on 27 January prohibited rock lobster fishing until a full review court had decided on the matter.

To play it safe and prevent further legal action, Sea Fisheries withheld the issuing of permits for other sectors of the fishing industry until after the end of the transition period on 1 March. While their boats were tied up at the quayside, fishing companies were not only losing millions of Rand, but also valuable markets as suppliers in other countries exploited their inability to deliver the goods.

Poaching of rock lobster has never been as serious as it is in the abalone fishery because it fetches comparatively low prices, but a ball-park estimate by Sea Fisheries is about 500 tons poached per year, compared to a commercial TAC for 1999 of just under 2 000 tons. Anyway, the problem is not so much the magnitude poached, but rather that it is often the females in berry and undersized rock lobsters that are taken, removing the breeding stock.

Still, the rock lobster industry has faced its own crises over the last decade. For reasons not fully understood, but thought to be a result of global environmental change, growth rates of rock lobsters slowed considerably during the late 1980s and early '90s, so much so that they were taking at least two years longer to reach the legal size limit. Just as the growth rates were recovering, the West Coast was hit by a series of rock lobster "walkouts". Although these are natural and fairly frequent occurrences, they are usually very localised and nowhere near the magnitude of the mass strandings of 1994's "black tide" in St Helena Bay, or the 1997 low-oxygen event in Elands Bay involving 2 000 tons of lobster - the largest walkout ever recorded.

The rock lobster populations in these areas have not yet fully recovered, but further south the distribution of the West Coast species, Jasus lalandii, seems to be shifting along the coast. Although the commercial fishery is limited to the area from Port Nolloth to False Bay, the species is found in lower densities all along the south coast to East London. Recently there has been an influx of rock lobster in the kelp beds to the east of Cape Hangklip, much to the delight of recreational divers, and the commercial fishery is now lobbying to operate there too.

Rob would be only too happy to see this happen. "The rock lobster are preying heavily on sea urchins in the area," he explains. "When they are very small, juvenile abalone hide underneath urchins for protection from predators, so their chances of surviving this critical period are being jeopardized now."

Ironically, rock lobster are compounding the threats facing Haliotis midae – driving home another nail in the coffin for the abalone fishery.

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