In broad daylight, groups of poachers hidden among the rocks of a South African marine conservation area wade slowly into the icy, shark-infested waters of the Atlantic Ocean in search of “white gold.”
Foot soldiers of a global criminal network stretching from the southernmost tip of Africa to the other side of the globe, they are scouring the rocks for abalone to meet insatiable demand from for the shellfish considered a delicacy in Asia.
The hunt is driving the species to the edge of extinction, but fears of being caught — either by coast guards or great white sharks — are relegated to the back of poachers’ minds in view of the glittering prizes on offer.
“We didn’t get much now but we will go out again tonight with the boat,” veteran poacher Stephan said as he emerged warily from the water as fisheries’ inspectors in speed boats could be seen whizzing about looking for boats further out to sea.
Destined for trendy restaurants in Hong Kong and China, abalone — dubbed “white gold” after its pearly flesh — can fetch up to 4,500 rand (US$420) a kilogram on the South African black market, and nearly three times that in Asia, experts say.
Also found in abundance in cold waters off New Zealand, Australia, Japan and the west coast of the US, abalone from South Africa is considered to be among the best.
The divers may only get 300 rand per kilogram, but in impoverished coastal villages such as Hout Bay, blighted by sky-high unemployment, that is still good money.
Caught on both sides of South Africa’s coastline, abalone, or perlemoen as it is called locally, is sold for cash or exchanged for methamphetamines, helping fuel South Africa’s already serious drug problem.
“Tonight we expect a good haul of between 50 and 60kg, maybe 100kg if we’re lucky,” Stephan said, shivering after two hours underwater in a battered wetsuit.
Like others interviewed for this story, he asked to be identified only by his first name.
Moving from their iron and wood shacks on the steep slopes of Hout Bay’s Hangberg, 20km east of Cape Town, the poachers trek over a snake-infested ridge, carrying heavy scuba-diving gear before reaching their destination of Seal Island.
With mobile phones sealed in condoms to keep out the water, they scan the ocean for patrol vessels and sharks before sliding into the deep.
Only a limited number of fisheries are licensed to harvest a highly circumscribed amount of abalone in South Africa, and the penalties for breaking the law are harsh.
Under no illusion about the dangers of being caught or the effect of depleted stocks on impoverished fishing villages, another poacher, Leon, echoes the line heard from almost all the fishermen: It is simply a question of survival.
“We are just ordinary fishermen struggling to survive, to put food in the pot, to pay school fees, to make a living,” he said, sitting among piles of empty abalone shells strewn across the beach.
FAST AND FURIOUS
On land the silky abalone are “shucked” from their shells before being dried in sheds or suburban garages. They can also be frozen prior to being smuggled out of the country in shipping containers.
Customs officers have intercepted consignments concealed as bedspread covers, plastic pellets or sardines. Some shipments are organized by notorious gangsters in the China-based triad.
“Triads do play a role, but in our experience it is mainly wealthy Asian businessmen who hide illegal activities behind legitimate businesses,” said Lise Potgieter, a member of the South African police’s elite Hawks detective unit.