Insatiable Asian demand for South Africa’s gourmet shellfish — the abalone — is driving the species to the brink of extinction, the ChicagoTribune reports.
But poachers aren’t thinking about the icy Atlantic, the shark-infested water or the South African marine patrol when they go out hunting for abalone, dubbed “white gold” for its pearly flesh, the report said.
Headed for trendy restaurants in Hong Kong and China, abalone can fetch up to $420 a kilogram on the South African black market, and up to three times more in Asia, experts say.
Divers may only earn around $28 per kilogram, but that’s good money in impoverished coastal villages such as Hout Bay.
Abalone is also found abundantly in cold waters off Japan, the west coast of the U.S., Australia and New Zealand, but South Africa’s mollusk is considered among the best, according to the report.
The shells of abalones have a spiral structure, and are characterized by breathing holes in a row near the outer edge. The thick inner layer is mother-of-pearl, and highly iridescent in many species, make it attractive for jewelry making.
The hunt is driving the species to the edge of extinction, the report said.
Caught on South Africa’s east and west coasts, abalone, or “perlemoen” as it is known
locally, is sold for cash or exchanged for methamphetamines, helping fuel South Africa’s
already serious drug problem.
Stephan, an abalone fisherman — or poacher, depending on where you’re standing — was interviewed on the job for this report. He asked to be identified only by his first name. “Tonight we expect a good haul of between 50 and 60 kilograms, maybe 100 if we’re lucky.”
From their iron and wood shacks on the steep slopes of Hout Bay’s Hangberg, 13
miles east of Cape Town, the poachers trek carrying heavy scuba-diving gear to their destination at Seal Island. They scan the ocean for patrol boats and sharks before submerging.
Very few fisheries are licensed to harvest a limited amount of abalone in South Africa. Penalties for violations include jail time.
Leon says what almost all the fishermen say: it’s simply a matter of survival. “We are just ordinary fishermen struggling to survive, to put food in the pot, to pay school fees, to make a living.”
On land the abalone are shucked from their shells, dried in sheds or suburban garages or frozen before being smuggled out of the country in shipping containers. Customs officers have intercepted consignments disguised as sardines, duvet covers or plastic pellets.
Some shipments are organized by Chinese ‘Triad’ gangsters, ChicagoTribune reports.
“But in our experience it is mainly wealthy Asian businessmen who hide
illegal activities behind legitimate businesses,” said Lise Potgieter, with the Hawks detective unit of the South African police.