State un­likely ‘win­ner’ as poach­ers plun­der sea

Mil­lions from auc­tions of con­fis­cated con­tra­band give marine unit a ’fi­nan­cial stake’ in il­licit trade

Sunday Times - - NEWS - ARON HY­MAN

THE South African Rev­enue Ser­vice has warned that the il­licit trade in abalone has be­come a threat to na­tional se­cu­rity.

In an­other twist, the De­part­ment of Agri­cul­ture, Forestry and Fish­eries has been ac­cused of com­plic­ity in the es­ca­lat­ing trade, which has seen a grow­ing in­flux of play­ers from neigh­bour­ing African coun­tries.

The Sun­day Times has es­tab­lished that abalone worth at least R63-mil­lion was given to the de­part­ment by law en­force­ment agen­cies — in­clud­ing SARS and the Hawks — be­tween April last year and March this year.

The con­fis­cated mol­luscs, highly sought af­ter in Asian coun­tries, are auc­tioned by the de­part­ment.

How­ever, de­part­men­tal of­fi­cials have failed to di­vulge just how much it had raked in from the auc­tions.

Bev­er­ley Schäfer, chair­woman of the Western Cape leg­is­la­ture’s stand­ing com­mit­tee on eco­nomic op­por­tu­ni­ties, tourism and agri­cul­ture, said it had asked the de­part­ment and the min­is­ter, Sen­zeni Zok­wana, to ac­count for the abalone, but it had been ig­nored.

Schäfer said the auc­tion­ing of the abalone im­plies the govern­ment has be­come a ma­jor stake­holder in the il­le­gal trade.

“The fact that 30% to 50% of Marine and Coastal Man­age­ment’s bud­get is de­rived from the sale of con­fis­cated abalone cre­ates a per­verse in­cen­tive,” said Schäfer.

“This could lead to MCM hav­ing a di­rect in­ter­est in main­tain­ing the il­le­gal abalone poach­ing.”

MCM is a unit in the de­part­ment and is re­spon­si­ble for polic­ing the poach­ing of marine re­sources, in­clud­ing abalone.

Last month SARS se­nior man­ager Ashika Pil­lay told the stand­ing com­mit­tee that the il­le­gal abalone trade had be­come a na­tional se­cu­rity threat.

“It is no longer just an en­vi­ron­men­tal crime, it has be­come a transna­tional crime and it is af­fect­ing the in­ter­ests of the state,” said Pil­lay.

She con­firmed that abalone seized by SARS is handed over to the de­part­ment, which has its own “auc­tion­ing pro­ce­dures”.

Abagold, a com­pany which legally cul­ti­vates abalone, has pointed out that abalone poached from South Africa has reached 2 500 tons per year, ac- LU­CRA­TIVE CRIME: Po­lice of­fi­cials sort through abalone con­fis­cated from poach­ers in the Western Cape cord­ing to import sta­tis­tics from Hong Kong last year.

This is 10 times the to­tal amount the govern­ment al­lows to be legally har­vested.

Ac­cord­ing to wildlife trade mon­i­tor­ing net­work Traf­fic In­ter­na­tional, about 1 723 tons were poached in 2012.

SARS told the stand­ing com­mit­tee that vast amounts of abalone are seized at border check­points and ports, in­clud­ing the Beit Bridge post to Zim­babwe.

Ac­cord­ing to Schäfer, Zim­babwe and Swazi­land ex­port “high quan­ti­ties” of dried abalone to Hong Kong de­spite be­ing land­locked coun­tries.

“More re­cent re­ports state that it is recorded as im­ports from South Africa. Dried abalone is con­sid­ered to be il­le­gally poached abalone. We need to un­der­stand from the De­part­ment of Agri­cul­ture, Forestry and Fish­eries how con­fis­cated poached abalone is sold,” said Schäfer.

“Are the cor­rect cus­toms reg­u­la­tions fol­lowed by [the de­part­ment] and why is this prac­tice of sell­ing con­fis­cated poached abalone al­lowed? We have re­quested that SARS in­ves­ti­gate the al­le­ga­tions.”

The de­part­ment did not re­spond to re­quests for com­ment.

Schäfer said gang­sters op­erem­ployee, at­ing in the poach­ing in­dus­try of­ten ex­change drugs such as tik for abalone.

A re­port com­mis­sioned by Abagold found that drug use has in­creased by 70% over the past two years among pri­mary school chil­dren in com­mu­ni­ties where poach­ers are most ac­tive. These in­clude ar­eas such as Zwelihle, Mount Pleas­ant and Haw­ston near Her­manus.

“The level of sub­stance abuse in [these ar­eas] was high­lighted to us when our long­est-serv­ing Clive Prince, was stabbed to death in 2014 by a young­ster al­legedly un­der the in­flu­ence of a sub­stance,” said Abagold spokes­woman Lou-Ann Lubbe.

Com­mu­ni­ties in the Over­strand area have been plunged into a state of law­less­ness.

In Haw­ston, just a few hun­dred me­tres from the har­bour, abalone poach­ers launch boats in broad day­light near the ru­ins of the SAPS dog unit’s for­mer base. The unit was used to crack down on poach­ing and drug deal­ing.

The build­ing was torched in 2012 along with seven po­lice ve­hi­cles, and a po­lice­man was in­jured in a shoot­ing shortly af­ter an al­leged poacher, aged 19, died.

A Haw­ston abalone diver, who asked not to be named, claimed the young­ster had been hit by a po­lice pa­trol boat.

Abalone diver Michael Wür­bach said brazen poach­ers were able to hold en­tire com­mu­ni­ties hostage. But he said com­mu­nity mem­bers were fed up and were will­ing to break the law to stop the poach­ing.

“And if there’s a body in the bush who gives a s**t? There are go­ing to be dead bod­ies if this s**t doesn’t stop,” said Wür­bach.

That 30% to 50% of MCM's bud­get comes from abalone sales cre­ates a per­verse in­cen­tive It is not just an en­vi­ron­men­tal crime, it is a transna­tional crime af­fect­ing the in­ter­ests of the state

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Pic­ture: TMG

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