Organized Crime Driving Collapse of South African Abalone

Published Sep 19, 2018 7:52 PM by The Maritime Executive

Over the past 18 years, poachers have stripped South African coastal waters of at least 96 million abalone. Efforts to curb the illegal trade have failed. Once abundant, the population of South African abalone Haliotis midae is now declining at unprecedented levels. On average two thousand tons of abalone are bagged annually by poachers – 20 times the legal take – in an illicit industry estimated to be worth at least $60 million a year.

These are some of the findings in a new report, Empty Shells: An assessment of abalone poaching and trade from southern Africa, published by TRAFFIC, the international wildlife trade monitoring network. 

Driven by sophisticated transnational criminal networks and local gangs, the illegal abalone trade has been fueled by deeply entrenched socio-economic disparities in the Western Cape, bitterly contested fishing quotas, drugs and gang violence, says TRAFFIC. A lack of regulation means that once abalone shipments have been smuggled out of South Africa to neighboring countries, they can easily be laundered without fear of law enforcement action.

An analysis of trade routes suggests that up to 43 percent of illegally harvested abalone was traded through a number of non-abalone-producing sub-Saharan African countries to Hong Kong between 2000 and 2016 - in most cases this trade occurred by air, about two percent by sea. Trade route analysis  suggests that most trade occurred in the Western Cape region and involved the major land and sea ports in South Africa, including Durban, Port Elizabeth and Johannesburg 

TRAFFIC is calling for stricter trade controls on South African abalone and a listing of the species on CITES, the Convention that governs trade in endangered, threatened, and at-risk species.