Poachers ‘have no alternative’
WHILE authorities clamp down on perlemoen poaching, five young men who raid the sea for this delicacy do not believe they are criminals.
“When Jesus and his disciples caught fish to eat, it wasn’t illegal. We must also survive. Why is there a problem now? The sea belongs to all of us,” said 21-year-old Calvin Smith, who asked the Cape Times not to use his real name.
Kitted out in Puma, Nike and adidas labels from head to toe, Smith and four other young poachers gathered around a glass table in a modest dining room at one of their homes in Hangberg – Hout Bay’s local fishing community.
Unable to find legitimate jobs, the men are at the beginning of their “careers” in poaching. They said it wasn’t an easy way to make a living. “A struggle life,” they called it.
“Poaching is how Hangberg survives. Most of us don’t have jobs or a good education. We poach and hustle to keep our mouths and our children’s mouths open,” said Smith.
The men say they poach at least two nights a week, depending on the weather. In one night they can net perlemoeb worth about R30 000.
The money is divided between the crew of between three and eight poachers.
A diver is paid about R1 000, while a “dra man”, the person who carries the perlemoen out of the sea, receives about R600.
They were reluctant to explain how the rest of the money was divided.
However, the men said the job came with danger in the form of police.
Gary Fortuin, who also asked that his real name not be used, explained – through gritted gold teeth – how “tired” he was of being beaten by police during raids. He said he had been in hospital about six times this year.
“The police expect us to respect them; how can we do that? They raid our houses without search warrants. They kick our TVs and other belongings broken, scratch in our freezers, beat us up and confiscate our cars… I’ve had broken ribs, swollen eyes, you name it. They see you with a kwaai (grand) car and they know it’s from poaching money,” he said.
Fortuin said police had never found perlemoen at his home because his catch always went straight to the buyer.
Smith said it was Hout Bay residents who tipped police off when they poached.
“It is our own people who piemp (tell on) us. But what they don’t know is that we are actually looking after them… our community. That woman who calls the police – it is her son or brother who poaches with us to make some money to feed his family,” he said.
However, police say the community also protects the poachers – and have attacked the police while searching for perlemeon.
Police spokesperson Sharon Japhta said: “We understand the Hangberg issue and we know that people are doing this to put food on their tables, but there are criminals behind this. We can’t allow Hangberg to be a ‘no-go’ area as far as police are concerned.” She also said the Criminal Procedure Act allowed police to enter homes without search warrants under certain conditions and use the necessary force to protect life and property.
Meanwhile, Gregg Brill, a Stellenbosch University researcher, said seven million perlemoen had been confiscated in South Africa between 2000 and 2009: “On one hand, you get people who poach as it is their only means of income and who feel that, due to historical circumstances, it is their cultural right. On the other hand, there are millionaires doing it purely out of greed.
“It is very difficult to say one is illegal while the other is not,” he wrote in his thesis.
“For several years, scientists in South Africa have been warning of the potential collapse of the commercial perlemoen industry.
“The primary reason is the illegal fishing of the resource.”
The courts have started to make examples of poachers, with several jail sentences being handed down in recent times.
And although the threat of jail hangs over their heads, these five men in Hangberg say they won’t stop.
“Our hearts are at sea, our fathers and their fathers were fishermen. If we can’t get work, we will carry on poaching,” Smith said.