As the police trucks round a bend on the white-sand beach, two surprised wetsuit-clad divers race from the water’s edge and sprint up a sandy hillside. The police give chase, disappearing into heavy brush, then return with their hands clamped on the shoulders of one of the panting divers.
He has just been picking up shells on the beach, he insists. But he’s soaking wet and carrying a flat pry bar, the abalone poacher’s tool of choice. His mesh collection bag is empty, though, so police can’t charge him. Reluctantly, they take his bag and pry tool and send him on his way.
“He’ll be back tomorrow,” predicts one of the marine agents. “All we have done is slow him down.”
Over the last decade, this rugged 60-mile stretch of coast east of Cape Town, home to one of the world’s last big concentrations of commercial abalone, has become a high-tech battleground, pitting conservation agents intent on saving the vanishing species and divers and smugglers who can earn thousands of dollars a day harvesting the giant sea snails, a delicacy in Asia, and spiriting them to Chinese dealers.
In an unprecedented effort to save the species, South Africa has bought new ships equipped with top-of-the-line military night-vision equipment, opened the world’s first court dedicated solely to prosecuting abalone poachers and begun testing seized poaching boats and equipment for DNA–at $700 a test–to prove they were used in abalone harvesting.
Lured from throughout South Africa to the equivalent of a maritime gold rush, the poachers, in turn, have turned Gans Bay, once a down-at-the-heels fishing village, into an increasingly prosperous local version of America’s Wild West.
Poaching rings maintain their own observation posts around town to warn of police raids and have taken to washing boats with industrial cleaners to thwart DNA tests. Fleets of new BMWs wait to carry poached abalone to Chinese mafia buyers. Throughout the town, in white, black and mixed-race neighbourhoods, illiterate fishermen and out-of-work tradesmen drive new pickups and live in new brick mansions.
“It’s not just the fishermen going for it. It’s everyone,” said Tommy Robberts, a long-time recreational fisherman and lodge owner in Gans Bay. “People without money are becoming wealthy. They don’t even mind losing $50,000 worth of abalone one night [to the police] because tomorrow they might be the ones that get away.”
Abalone harvesting and poaching are nothing new along South Africa’s wild southern coast. Early Khoisan inhabitants of the region left behind giant middens of iridescent abalone shells that are still visible along the shore near Gans Bay.
For as long as anybody can remember, local fishermen and divers have ignored catch limits and hauled home a few more of the snails than they were allowed for the home cook pot. Everybody in Gans Bay has a favourite recipe–sliced then battered and cooked in butter, or maybe put in a seafood stew.
Small-scale poaching, however, turned large-scale in the mid-1990s, when Chinese demand for the increasingly rare snails, which are considered an aphrodisiac, began to boom and prices skyrocketed from a few cents a pound to more than $25. In 1994, conservation records show, 21,000 abalone were harvested nationwide in South Africa; by 2002, the known harvest was 857,000.
As poaching boomed, the fist-sized adult abalone that once carpeted the Gans Bay region’s rocky shallows began to vanish, and poachers moved on to taking silver-dollar sized juveniles. Because an abalone reproduces only after gaining adult size, after about seven years, conservationists fear the snails may be on their way to vanishing.
“The way we are going now [the poachers] are going to take it all out,” said Dian Leodolff, an operations manager with the region’s anti-poaching squad, which is made up of police officers, conservation agents, marines and navy divers.
Source: Chicago Tribune