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The Disturbing War for Abalone

South Africa’s illicit abalone trade is steeped in the after-effects of apartheid, organized and violent crime, illegal drugs, and corruption. Species like rhinos, tigers, and elephants are generally better at building public awareness than abalone, a large type of marine snail, but don’t be fooled into thinking that the potency of wildlife crime is any...

South Africa’s illicit abalone trade is steeped in the after-effects of apartheid, organized and violent crime, illegal drugs, and corruption. Species like rhinos, tigers, and elephants are generally better at building public awareness than abalone, a large type of marine snail, but don’t be fooled into thinking that the potency of wildlife crime is any less for abalone. As you read this fascinating account, it’s important to remember that this is one of about sixty species of abalone, each of which has significant economic value—only two have been assessed by the IUCN Red List and the species below is not one of them.

Abalone is a type of marine snail that has been traditionally harvested and cooked in coastal areas all over the world. Haliotis midae, photo courtesy of Adelle Roux.

For nearly a decade, starting in the early 1990s, abalone poaching operated almost without notice. However, nearing the millenium this small, informal and opportunistic activity exploded into a large-scale, highly organized and transnational criminal activity that now rakes in millions of dollars on the black market. The export of abalone to Asian markets, where consumers will pay hundreds of dollars per kilogram, at first brought unprecedented wealth to coastal communities that had just exited institutionalized apartheid. In these coastal towns, entrenched structural inequality, limited governance and a lack of institutional capacity allowed the establishement of international crime syndicates that saw an enormous potential for profit from abalone.

For many local people, this newly recognized source of wealth meant that, at its peak price, a person could earn four times the average monthly income for just two hours of work. As a result, coastal South Africa transformed from a network of small fishing communities, to outposts of international organized crime battling for the opportunity to harvest and export abalone. It is not surprising then that these turf wars have resulted in what can be best described as a script for murder, vengeance, drug use, luxury, heartbreak, thievery and corruption. However, the money earned can also be used to send childern to better schools, provide healthier food, and increase quality of life. But in many cases, the wealth gained by poaching abalone is flaunted with sportscars and luxury items, and it’s not uncommon to see an entire street of homes with gleaming new satellite dishes. Additionally, international crime syndicates often trade abalone for illegal drugs like methamphetimines or heroin that tend to erode communities.

Abalone collection itself is not illegal, but there are catch limits and the framework of an abalone management system (however fraught with challenges it may be). In one of the many attempts to stem the illegal trade in abalone a dedicated environmental court was created to handle abalone poaching cases for South Africa. The prosecution rate for this court was 75%, compared to 10% in mainstream courts that tended (and still tend) not to view wildlife crime as the serious crime it is. Despite this success, citing budget constraints, the court was closed in 2006 and as a partial response in 2007 South African abalone (Haliotis midae) was listed under CITES appendix III, restricting its international trade by requiring that exported abalone be accompanied by a CITES permit. However, this CITES listing was withdrawn in 2010 due to the logistical constraints of monitoring abalone exports.

In many parts of the world there are vibrant and sustainable enterprises that raise abalone for human consumption. While this may help reduce collection pressure on wild individuals, these species still have high value in markets, especially in Hong Kong, the epicenter of both legal and illegal trade for wildlife products. Haliotis midae, photo courtesy of Derek Keats.

In a 2012 estimate 1,723 metric tonnes (almost 4 million pounds) of abalone were harvested in South Africa—an order of magnitude larger than the allowable catch. However, researchers discovered that much of the abalone arriving at markets in Hong Kong was being exported from land-locked African nations that have no abalone stocks or fishery (e.g. Lesotho, Swaziland) and had been smuggled into the country from South Africa. Upon arrival in Hong Kong, the abalone are declared to customs officials, and since abalone is not illegal, the abalone that probably originated in the illegal South Africa abalone trade is washed of its history and enters the legal supply.

Beyond abalone, this is the mechanism by which much illegal wildlife trade persists. Hundreds of other species that have some value to people as food, pets, “aphrodisiacs”, or any other value are harvested from wild populations for trade. The sustainable use of these species is important to people and if harvested responsibly and with some mechanism of replacement, nature can continue to provide the species that people enjoy or depend on. However, if a species is harvested unsustainably, it can have drastic consequences for both people and the survival of these species.

Of the two species of abalone that have been evaluated by the IUCN Red List, one is listed as “Critically Endangered” (Haliotis cracherodii) and one is listed as “Endangered” (Haliotis kamtschatkana). Both are native to the western coast of North America and are threatened by poaching. Photo courtesy of Genevieve Anderson.

For species like the South African abalone (Haliotis midae), it is clear that the combined legal and illegal harvest of this species has had significant consequences for people living in coastal South African communities as well as the abalone populations and the ecosystems of which they are an essential part. However, without some international and impartial metric to gauge how many abalone remain in the sea, how fast they reproduce, where they are located, and how they actually contribute to human livelihoods, the conservation of this species must rely on estimates that often must weigh competing political considerations, or no estimates at all. The future of this and other abalone species in the wild is dependent on a comprehensive assessment of the capacity for their sustainable harvest and the most appropriate and trusted method to accomplish this is through the IUCN Red List as it works to increase the number of species assessed to include all abalone and other potentially threatened but unevaluated organisms.

This short account is based on a report released by TRAFFIC International, with support from USAID and IUCN. Please read the entire, fascinating report here



Craig R. Beatty. IUCN

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International Union for Conservation of Nature
The International Union for Conservation of Nature is the world’s oldest and largest global environmental organization made up of more than 1,000 organizations, as well as 10,000 individual scientists and experts working on conservation around the globe. Perhaps we are best known for the IUCN Red List of Threatened Species, which is the global standard for species science and conservation information and the connection to human livelihoods and is celebrating 50 years of conservation action in 2014.