By Kimon de Greef
Behind the Cape's illicit perlemoen trade are whole communities that rely on the income the illegal abalone fishers bring in.
A little over a year ago, I drove my scooter into Hangberg in the Western Cape and met a perlemoen poaching kingpin. It was a Wednesday afternoon and the sun was out. Six shirtless men were sitting on camping stools and upturned crates on the pavement.
My contact, David*, who lived in the adjacent apartment, was nowhere to be seen and I could feel the men’s eyes following me as I parked. The clip on my helmet jammed; I fumbled and tugged myself free. I crossed the road and greeted them to little response, then walked into the empty yard.
David met me at the front door with a mug in his hand. He had shaved since the first time we met and was wearing a red tracksuit, looking fresh despite his greying hair and furrowed cheeks. Loud music thumped from the lounge. An ancient washing machine had been carried outside and was shuddering on the dirt beside us. A young boy brought chairs and David handed him a folded banknote, and the kid ran off while the two of us sat in the shade of a low tree, smoking cigarettes.
The men on the other side of the fence shared a hookah pipe and watched the street. They argued in rapid-fire Afrikaans, whistled at girls, threw dice, taunted the occupants of a passing police van and roundly ignored my presence.
I’d met David through a fisheries researcher who had investigated crayfish poaching in Hangberg for her doctorate. The two had worked together – David once participated in an illicit rowboat-based kreef (crayfish) harvesting operation – and she assured me he’d become “heavily involved” in the perlemoen trade as well. She gave me his number and I called him immediately.
By then I’d already spent a month sniffing at the edges of Hout Bay’s clandestine poaching economy, lurking around the harbour at night, watching unmarked rubber ducks launch and approaching stoned watchmen and prostitutes for leads. I had managed to interview a diver, a former middleman and a small group of carriers. But I needed deeper access to get to grips with the socioeconomic drivers and impacts of perlemoen poaching in the community, the main objective of my research, and time was running out.
The boy who’d brought the chairs returned with a newspaper parcel of marijuana, which David lobbed to an older kid leaning against the fence. ” Maak ‘n pyp [make a pipe\,” he instructed, and the kid sat and winnowed seeds for a smoke.
I asked David about a large rubber duck I’d seen launching from the harbour as I drove in. Most perlemoen poaching in South Africa takes place from high-speed boats now, and part of my research entailed finding out how many were active in Hangberg.
“It was bigger than the others I’ve seen around here,” I explained.
“You mean like a white man’s boat?”
One of the shirtless men from next door spun around. His eyes were wide and his chin was thrust forward aggressively. He had broad shoulders, thick biceps and a round belly. Tattoos sprawled across his hands and up his forearms.
“I mean like a very nice boat.”
“We don’t fuck with nice boats. You can’t put down that kind of money when you know the cops might catch you – then you lose half a million rand. You must work clever, man.”
He turned away but the others were watching.
“So you know Denver*?” David asked.
“No.” He laughed and lifted the pipe. “Denver’s a big man around here. If you don’t know Denver, you know nothing.”
I was attempting to profile illegal perlemoen harvesting in Hout Bay as part of a master’s in conservation biology at the University of Cape Town. Working beneath academics from the Environmental Evaluation Unit, an interdisciplinary research group with a strong focus on fisheries governance, I was interested in getting an inside view of one of the most pressing conservation and natural resource management threats in this country.
Since the late 1980s, rampant poaching has decimated perlemoen stocks throughout the Western and Eastern Cape, driving the species, which is endemic to South Africa and found nowhere else on earth, to the brink of commercial extinction. Perlemoen, a giant kelp-grazing sea snail commonly known as abalone, is considered a delicacy and a status symbol in the Far East, where its flesh fetches prices of up to thousands of dollars a kilogram.
A commercial abalone fishery, based mainly on the Overberg coast, has supplied wealthy consumers in places such as Japan, China and Hong Kong since the end of World War II, but sharply rising demand, coupled with the infiltration of organised criminal groups into impoverished fishing communities, has contributed to a spiralling nightmare of uncontrolled harvesting over the past two decades.
According to estimates by Marcus Burgener from Traffic, the international wildlife trade monitoring group, between 1 500 and 2 200 tonnes of perlemoen have been poached annually between 2009 and 2012. This is more than 10 times the total allowable catch, a figure set annually by scientists at the department of fisheries.
The commercial fishery still operates but has shrunk to a fraction of its former size, with officials unable to justify larger quotas in the face of accelerating resource depletion. Meanwhile, a sophisticated criminal economy, involving transnational Triad groups, local street gangs and other powerful underworld players, continues to pump vast cash sums into procuring illicit products for the Asian market, where purchasing abalone over the counter is still permitted.
Some of this money ends up in places like Hangberg, a predominantly coloured fishing community still battling the structural hangovers of apartheid. One of my goals was to understand the different roles this revenue stream had started to play.
The morning we first met, David waited for me on the corner and directed me to his home, a small two-bedroomed unit on the ground floor of a dilapidated row of council flats. A broken boat was parked on a trailer opposite. A Rastafarian with giant, calloused hands stared me down as he mulled a fistful of marijuana at the gate.
” Wit man, wat maak jy hier? [White man, what are you doing here?\” the Rasta asked as we entered, not waiting for a response.
“Look,” said David, reaching behind a potted mint bush and handing me a perlemoen shell the size of his face. It was an immense, humped, deep thing, rutted and grey on the outside, pearlescent and smooth within. “This is a trophy,” he said. “From a reef near Cape Point. It’s the biggest they get.”
He explained his poaching work as we sat amid the plants and the Rasta, whose name was John*, continued preparing his spliff. David told me he skippered a boat for a white diver who had relocated to Hout Bay to target reefs on the Cape Peninsula. Another local diver – whom by chance I’d already interviewed – worked with them, as well as a bootsman, or deck assistant.
The divers paid David R20 a kilogram of perlemoen they harvested; the bootsman earned half as much. The divers also hired carriers to run their catch to middlemen in the community, who paid prices of between R200 and R250 a kilogram. These middlemen sold the product on to buyers from larger criminal syndicates, who ultimately controlled the illicit trade to the Far East.
On a good night, after expenses, the two divers could earn R10 000 each, with David taking home R4 000.
As a skipper, David occupied an intermediate position in the poaching hierarchy, which extended from powerful buyers and middlemen (local kingpins) down to part-time carriers, many of whom were still in school. Compared with the men at the top – men like Denver – David was not a wealthy man: his apartment was simply furnished, his clothes were worn and he owned no vehicle. Nevertheless, he managed to put food on the table for his wife and four children, pay school fees and buy his sons soccer boots.
He could also afford high-grade marijuana, so-called “cheese” that sold for R100 a gram, which he mixed in with the cheaper majat that people grew on the slopes behind the settlement. More....