By Melani Gosling and Craig McKune

Law enforcement officials are losing the war against better equipped perlemoen poachers who have high-speed boats that can quickly get from Hawston to Cape Point and even to Robben Island, say experts.

Mike Tannet, of Seawatch in the Overstrand, said poachers now had better boats than law enforcement officers and had money to bribe officials.

Seawatch had monitored the activities of about 100 boats suspected of poaching in the Overstrand region.

Tannet said Marine and Coastal Management (MCM) was "battling with resources" and had too few boats and too few people to man them when they got poaching tip-offs.

"Poaching gets worse with time.

"The longer you allow it to go on, the more power goes to the poachers.

"They get more money and can buy better boats and vehicles, and they have more money to bribe officials," Tannet said.

MCM has warned that, unless law enforcement is stepped up and the diving ban rigorously enforced, South Africa's stocks of abalone will be wiped out.

In a report on the Abalone Scientific Working Group set up to assess the abalone stocks, MCM said, if there was no immediate action, "the abalone resource will continue to decline at the current rate of poaching, making rebuilding of the resource impossible".

Poaching had increased rapidly in the 1990s and soon "spiralled out of control with the illegal catch far exceeding the commercial catch over the last 10 years".

Records since 1994 showed there had been "a more than threefold increase" in the confiscation of illegal hauls of abalone over the past six years. In 2006, more than 1 million abalone were confiscated.

Estimates are that last year about 2.7 million abalone - 863 tons - were stolen along the Overstrand between Rooi Els and Quoin Point, a headland about halfway between Gansbaai and Agulhas.

"The increase in confiscations indicates the large increase in illegal activity over time - even after policing efficiency is factored in.

The total amount poached far exceeds the amounts that are confiscated," the report said.

To try to combat poaching, fines had been increased, two law enforcement vessels patrolled the area, the commercial abalone industry was closed in February, 2008, and a diving ban was imposed from Danger Point to Quoin Point, around Bird, Dyer and Robben islands and in parts of Table Mountain National Park.

However, the scientists found that "poaching is still continuing at a high rate, in particular in the key 'dive ban' areas" between Danger Point and Quoin Point.

Although there had been a slight decrease in poaching from 2007 to 2008, current levels were "still high and unsustainable".

But if poaching could be eliminated between Danger and Quoin points, the scientists said, abalone stocks "could increase quite rapidly".

This was not likely to happen in the areas where rock lobster had moved in.

Large-scale migration of West Coast rock lobster eastwards had altered the marine ecosystem as the lobster ate large numbers of baby abalone and sea urchins.

This hit the abalone population twice: the lobsters destroyed large numbers of young abalone and removed the spiny urchins which provided important protection for the young abalone which sheltered under them.

The report recommended that an abalone recovery task group be appointed to integrate research and management in monitoring abalone stocks.

Meanwhile, recent abalone busts close to Cape Town suggest poachers are moving further afield.

Six boats and more than 30 divers were caught poaching perlemoen at Buffels Bay in the Cape Point Nature Reserve last week.

In a dramatic arrest in which police shot out the motors of two of the boats and confiscated another, 33 men were arrested and police seized 2 139 perlemoen. MCM spokesperson Carol Moses said all the suspects were from Hawston. Arrests were made at Cape Point "on a daily basis".

Tannett said perlemoen were in a particularly bad state in the Betty's Bay area, prompting poachers to look further afield.

Scott Russell, of the SA Abalone Industry Association, said the Cape Point arrests were "a step in the right direction, but the bigger picture is that poaching remains out of control".

He said research by international NGO Traffic suggested two thirds of SA perlemoen exports in 2008 were poached. "This isn't the first, second or even 10th time for this type of large-scale poaching at Cape Point. It's happening all the time, just like at Robben Island, Dyer Island and in parts of the Eastern Cape."

[email protected]

[email protected]