DURBAN – Today the abalone trade is rife with violence and corruption, enmeshed in the drug trade and controlled by local gangs.
That was according to the Global Initiative Against Transnational Organised Crime (GI-TOC), in its Risk Bulletin issue 23, Observatory of Illicit Economies in Eastern and Southern Africa.
The GI-TOC said the illicit abalone economy has been flourishing in South Africa for more than 25 years. Demand for the sea-floor-growing molluscs (considered a high-status delicacy in East Asia, primarily in China) has driven a black market, which, in South Africa, is closely bound up with organised crime. The industry today is rife with violence and corruption, enmeshed in the drug trade and controlled by local gangs. Consequently, the already harsh environmental and social impacts of the abalone trade continue to worsen.
It explained that abalone poaching occurred along most of South Africa’s coastline, with hot spots in the Cape peninsula and Overberg regions of the Western Cape, the portion of the Eastern Cape coast up to Gqeberha, and further north up to the Wild Coast. Once caught, the product is shucked and dried at some of the many processing facilities throughout the country.
Dried abalone is smuggled to Hong Kong, an abalone trade hub that imports thousands of tons of the mollusc each year.
“While the gangsters brought violence and drugs to South Africa’s fishing communities, the poaching economy provided a revenue stream for gangs to buy weapons and drugs, thereby handing gangs greater power and having a transformative effect on the gangs themselves,” the GI-TOC said.
The GI-TOC explained that today the abalone market was a complex ecosystem. As of 2020, five distinct groups of actors could be identified working in the illegal trade: poaching syndicates (known as ‘divers’) that developed out of coloured fishing communities in the Western Cape; black poaching syndicates and divers from the Eastern Cape, working in the Overberg and Cape Town area, who are increasingly affiliated with gangs; Cape criminal gangs, in particular those associated with the notorious 28s prison gang; Somali (and sometimes Congolese) South Africa-based middlemen buying from black divers, and arranging transport and laundering for Chinese buyers; and Chinese networks encompassing buyers, driers and exporters.
These elements of the supply chain suggest a striking division between local actors, operating primarily in the bottom half of the value chain, and foreign nationals operating mainly at the top.
“In addition to the criminal networks directly involved in the abalone trade, there are a range of people who can be considered as ‘enablers’ of the illicit market. These provide crucial professional services such as facilitating financial transactions or providing legal or logistical services, and in many ways make the criminal trade possible,” the GI-TOC said.
The GI-TOC said that as with other forms of illegal wildlife trade, the abalone market has been criminalised because of its environmental harms: the degradation of a species endemic to South Africa (H. midae), and the knock-on effect on the integrity of kelp-forest ecosystems.
“Yet there are also acute social repercussions linked to the illicit abalone trade, including increased violence and corruption, and burgeoning arms and drugs markets spurred by financial flows to criminal gangs. These harms have also become more acute over time as a greater range of criminal actors have become involved in the trade, with highly detrimental consequences for certain Cape communities,” the GI-TOC said.
“Globally, drug policy reforms have successfully shifted towards approaches that aim to limit the harmful social effects of these illegal markets. It may be time for the illegal abalone trade to also adopt a similar harm-reduction approach.”
Last month, the GI-TOC published a study by Simone Haysom and Kimon de Greef titled ‘Disrupting abalone harms: Illicit flows of H. midae from South Africa to East Asia’ and information from the risk bulletin were drawn from that study.
More than 50 abalone-related crimes were reported by the police in South Africa between January 2021 to March 2022.
Some of the seizures that made headlines from the Cape in 2021:
- In October, the Hawks, Crime Intelligence and officials from the Department of Forestry, Fisheries and the Environment (DFFE) recovered over 5 206 units (375.44kg) of dried abalone with a street value of more than R2.7 million.
- In July, the Gqeberha K9 unit confiscated abalone to the approximate street value of R3.7m. Police seized 140 plastic bags containing frozen de-shelled abalone (1400kg), 13 plastic bags containing dried abalone (233.88kg), five deep freezers, a scale and a cellphone.
- In May, police recovered a total of 70 boxes containing 23 896 dried abalone with an estimated street value of R9.9m.