Andricus van der Westhuizen
CAPE TOWN - In cities and towns across the Western Cape’s shoreline, illicit abalone poaching has become a common occurrence and has resulted in a thriving black market industry.
The impact of abalone poaching has serious implications for communities. This is especially the case in small coastal towns, where economic opportunities are often far and few in between.
Abalone poaching also has a significant impact on the Western Cape, especially with regard to crime and the environment.
According to a study by the Global Initiative Against Transnational Organized Crime, abalone poaching in South Africa has been closely linked to the trafficking of synthetic drugs since the 1990s. Over the past three decades, the Cape’s gangs have exploited our local biodiversity to fund and grow their illegal drug trade.
The same drug trade has plunged many of our local communities into unfathomable violence, driven by gangs.
Given the lucrative nature of abalone poaching, more and more young people are being trapped in lives of crime, as abalone poaching appears to grow unabated.
During the recent apprehension of suspected abalone poachers, the arrested parties were between the ages of 25 and 30. The high levels of unemployment lure some young people to act as divers for these poaching syndicates.
The wealthy lifestyles and generosity of the leaders of poaching syndicates stand in stark contrast to the lack of prospects and jobs in smaller towns.
Abalone poaching also has major implications on the biodiversity of our intertidal zones.
South Africa’s abalone populations are dangerously low, to the point of near extinction.
A report by TRAFFIC in 2018 titled, “Empty Shells: An assessment of abalone poaching and trade from southern Africa”, found that since 2016, South Africa has lost about 96 million units of abalone to illegal poaching.
It appears that the best efforts of the National Department of the Environment, Forestry and Fisheries, as well as the SAPS, are unable to stop the illegal poaching of these species.
There is an evident lack of resource deployment and, most importantly, a lack of cross-governmental cooperation to effectively address abalone poaching.
The constitution mandates the national government to protect and manage our marine resources.
The fight against abalone poaching, however, requires the active support of all spheres of government, and even the private sector. Municipalities’ law enforcement officers and law-abiding citizens in our coastal areas are required to keep a close eye on any illegal activity.
The Departments of Community Safety and Environmental Affairs of the provincial government can, and should, also give valuable tactical support to the national departments.
And at a national level, the SAPS, together with the law-enforcement officers of the National Department of Environment, Forestry and Fisheries, is required to collaborate with local authorities and provincial officials.
Furthermore, it is the collective responsibility of all spheres of government to accelerate economic recovery, as a matter of urgency.
While the country’s economic struggles are not the primary reason for the abalone poaching crisis, it certainly is a major contributing factor to the abundant growth in abalone poaching.
We need business environments that make job creation and employment possibilities for all communities. Poaching is not just profitable, it is also a means to an end for many of those in impoverished fishing towns.
Minister of Environment, Forestry and Fisheries Barbara Creecy must also demonstrate responsive leadership. She needs to clean up the Department of Environment, Forestry and Fisheries, meet with representatives from all other spheres of government, listen to their recommendations, and put strategies in place that would work towards putting an end to abalone poaching.
She also needs to honour invitations from provincial oversight bodies where they arrive, in order to ensure full cooperation with provinces and to hear from them about the support needed within the available resources of the National Department.
Finally, the national government must protect the existing, legal abalone farming industry to ensure that abalone does not become extinct.
This can be done through international cooperation and multinational agreements with neighbouring states, where abalone poaching may not be considered illegal.
This is in order to stop cross-border transport of illegal abalone, as well as to protect the local, legal abalone farming industry from ruin.
The legal abalone farming industry is lucrative and contributes to the country's economic growth and the job security of many.
Almost everything is achievable if there is political will and a concerted effort between various spheres of government to cooperate.
Andricus van der Westhuizen is an MPL and DA Western Cape spokesperson on environmental affairs