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Open letter: Curbing abalone poaching is the no 1 job in the Overberg

Abalone poaching has very few winners, and leaves our communities in the Overberg region in the hands of organised crime.

The biggest losers are the poor who are trapped in a vicious circle of life in the underworld, victims of drug abuse, criminal activities and prostitution.

Overberg is in the middle of a battle, where economic opportunities are lost and the unemployed are suffering because of lack of opportunities and communities taken hostage by gangsters.

A World Wide Fund (WWF) report published in August 2016, estimates that illegal harvesting of abalone (poaching) from South African shores comprise more than 90% of total abalone production with an estimated value, after processing, of more than R1 billion.

A study conducted by the Western Cape Department of Economic Development and Tourism has estimated that to maintain the current level of fish consumption worldwide, global aquaculture production would have to grow from 45,5 million tons a year – as recorded in 2004 – to 80 million tons by 2050. This increasing demand is a major opportunity for the province’s aquaculture industry.

The Western Cape Government has committed R1 million to facilitate the environmental impact assessments on the identified sites in order to unlock investments into aquaculture. They also plan to apply to the National Department of Trade and Industry to declare the area between Hermanus and Gansbaai a special economic zone (SEZ) so that abalone farmers receive special tariffs and incentives in order to increase their production, grow real jobs and reduce poaching.

All these plans are doomed if we do not combat abalone poaching.

Abalone became a high-value dollar denominated commodity traded by gangs based in the Western Cape (WC) for other high-value commodities used to manufacture drugs. Chinese businesses bartered cheaply acquired chemical precursors for high-value abalone, while Western Cape drug lords bartered cheaply acquired abalone for high-value drugs, according to Jonny Steinberg.

In 1996, Operation Neptune, one of the first coordinated initiatives to counter-organised poaching as well as conserve abalone within its natural habitat was launched by Marine Coastal Management (MCM), the national fisheries authority at the time. Operation Neptune, a full-time joint operation among MCM, South African Police Services (SAPS), the South African National Defence Force (SANDF), supported by specialised “environmental courts” in Hermanus and Port Elizabeth, successfully demonstrated that through increased detection and effective prosecution, you can curb poaching.

However, you cannot only resolve this through policing, you also have to tackle the social ills and create other opportunities to create a sustainable livelihood. Without community-based support these and similar interventions would have negligible outcomes, given the inherent challenges in patrolling a vast coastline, to intercept the vast numbers of poachers from coastal communities operating within sophisticated and organised networks.

Moving Fisheries Management from the Department of Environmental Affairs and Tourism (DEAT) to the Department of Agriculture, Forestry and Fisheries (DAFF) has not had a positive outcome for abalone poaching, and the positive results we saw from Operation Neptune are now gone. It is obvious that the national authorities are either incapable or wilfully negligent of the battle against organised crime.

Our maritime resource stretches from Port Nolloth on the West Coast, to Punto D’ Oro on the East Coast of Mozambique, which is approximately 3 200 km.

During the 2015/16 financial year, Deputy Provincial Police Commissioner Thembisile Patekile indicated that more than R45 million worth of poached abalone was seized by the police force, and 271 arrests were made since 2015. SAPS has also identified 21 poaching hotspots, including Robben Island, Paternoster, Hout Bay, Cape Point and Hawston.

For us to win the fight against the illicit abalone trade and poaching the Border Control Operational Coordinating Committee (BCOCC), South African Maritime Safety Authority (SAMSA), working together with the justice cluster, law enforcement agencies, SANDF and the Southern African Developing Community (SADC) need to heighten their efforts and ensure stringent measures are put in place to combat illicit abalone trade and poaching.

This, combined with creating job opportunities and opening up our small boat harbours, will better enable Local Municipalities to operate them and help our fishing communities get out of the current vicious cycle of crime and destitution.

Masizole Mnqasela,
Member of the Western Cape Provincial Parliament and constituency head for the Overstrand and Overberg District Municipality

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