Hout Bay police Captain Rian Bester (left) went to the scene after being tipped off that abalone poachers were diving off Llandudno, but he was unable to go after them as the police station does not have a boat. He phoned the SAPS Water Wing, but it arrived too late. Police divers were unable to find the abalone, believed to have been stashed under water.

Police say abalone poaching around Hout Bay and Llandudno is becoming “worse than Hawston and Onrus” with organised gangs paying their “lookouts” up to R500 for a single cellphone call tipping them off about approaching law enforcement officers.

Knowing that they have to be caught in possession of abalone before they can be prosecuted, the divers seldom leave the sea with their illegal catch, but instead drop the bag of abalone in a spot to be collected later, police say.

Divers, often with scuba gear, are dropped off by boat in daylight, hack the valuable shellfish off the rocks, bag them and leave them in the sea.

The skipper takes a GPS position, picks up the divers and leaves. A boat will return later to collect the abalone. It is sold, usually to Chinese syndicates, or is sometimes exchanged for drugs.

Most of the poachers’ boats are fast and outrun those of the authorities. If poachers are likely to be overtaken, they jettison the abalone. Some keep bleach on board which they splash on to the decks to remove DNA traces of abalone.

An informed source told the Cape Times that one member of a poaching syndicate had recently bought a mansion in Hout Bay on the proceeds of the illegal abalone trade.

“It’s quick money. It’s like diamonds,” the source said.

If Hout Bay police get a tip-off, there is little they can do as they have no boat. They have to call the SAPS Water Wing in Table Bay or Simon’s Town. By the time the water wing reaches Hout Bay, the poachers have left or their catch has been hidden under water.

Captain Rian Bester says a police boat is needed at Hout Bay, where he is stationed.

On Friday, he was alerted that three divers were at Llandudno. He was there in 15 minutes.

“But we can’t get on to the water. We could see them, so I phoned the water wing and they came in a rubber duck and got the three guys, but the police divers could not find anything. So they issued fines because these guys were diving in a restricted area.

“We have a huge problem here and we need assistance. We’re trying to ask the provincial commissioner for our own boat.”

The Cape Times visited the house of a Llandudno resident, who did not want to be named, who took photographs of the operation on Friday.

“It’s good the police got here, but the three divers got away with poaching, and will be back, probably after dark, to collect the perlemoen,” the resident said. “They put lookouts on the rocks so they have ample time to stash the perlemoen. We see boats coming in at night. This is a sanctuary and diving is forbidden, but they do it all the time.”

Poachers often carry cellphones in condoms when they dive. They vibrate when lookouts phone to warn them.

* There was a clash when law enforcement authorities pursued suspected poachers’ boat into the Hout Bay harbour on Saturday night. Poachers apparently fired at the police, while a crowd of about 100 people, apparently from Hangberg, threw stones at the officers. - Cape Times