Hakai Magazine

diver and abalone shells
The discarded shells of poached abalone litter the seafloor near Cape Town, South Africa. Photo by National Geographic Image Collection/Alamy Stock Photo

South Africa’s Abalone Black Market Is Being Squeezed by COVID-19

The pandemic has temporarily collapsed the price of illegal abalone. But when the market returns, poaching is likely to get even worse.

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by Kimon de Greef

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Last month, as South Africa entered one of the world’s strictest coronavirus lockdowns, an abalone poacher in Cape Town received a call. One of his contacts had more than a tonne of abalone and needed a buyer. The stash of illegal shellfish would soon begin to spoil.

Pre-pandemic, the load was worth about US $32,000—more than 40 times the median annual income in South Africa. But the illegal abalone market had collapsed. Nobody was looking to buy.

And so the poacher, who requested anonymity, walked away from the deal. What happened to the abalone? “They threw it away.”

In South Africa’s difficult economy—the most unequal in the world, according to the World Bank—more than 55 percent of the population lives in poverty, a figure that jumps to 64 percent for black residents. These conditions have helped give rise to a vast black market for abalone, a delicacy in Chinese cuisine that can sell for more than $100 per kilogram. Beds of the shellfish were once so plentiful in shallow waters that they resembled tightly packed cobblestones. There is no shortage of willing poachers diving among great white sharks to harvest them.

Chinese mafia groups, in alliance with South African drug cartels, have taken control of the market, sometimes exchanging abalone for chemicals like ephedrine, used to manufacture crystal meth. Over the past few decades, these syndicates have paid poachers to collectively harvest some 45,000 tonnes of abalone—or nearly six tonnes per day—based on estimates by Traffic, a wildlife trade monitoring group.

Money from abalone poaching has corrupted every government agency tasked with combating the problem. In 2018, the two top officials in South Africa’s fisheries department were embroiled in separate abalone scandals.

But the discovery of the novel coronavirus SARS-CoV-2 in Wuhan, China, and the country’s subsequent clampdown on imported wildlife products achieved what the South African government could not—bringing the abalone black market to a grinding halt. The local price plummeted from around $45 to $22 per kilogram, poachers say.

Poaching has been “on a low scale compared to before lockdown,” says Babalwa Dlangamandla, a spokesperson for the South African National Parks Service, which conducts marine patrols in collaboration with other government agencies.

In Port Elizabeth, another city where the illegal abalone trade is normally rampant, poaching “dropped off but is picking up speed again,” according to Dewald Barnard, who coordinates a team of anti-poaching volunteers. “The guys are desperate to make money,” Barnard says. “The economic situation will force poachers back to the coast.”

Though demand has temporarily dropped, the root causes that drive people into poaching have intensified under the lockdown, which has disproportionately hurt poor communities. As soon as the market returns, “there will be an overwhelm” of poaching, predicts Angelo Joseph, a representative from the Cape Town community of Hangberg.

And so the shutdown is unlikely to bring a lasting reprieve for South Africa’s abalone, already classified by scientists as heavily depleted.

In many fishing communities, still socially and economically marginalized more than 25 years after apartheid, poaching has become a major source of income. In Hangberg, an impoverished and overcrowded settlement within sight of luxury housing estates, hundreds of families have come to depend on the abalone black market. While some poachers have grown wealthy, many remain in poverty, earning a fraction of what their harvest is worth.

Money from poaching funds parties, drug abuse, and flashy clothing, but it also pays for food, school fees, and housing, filling a gap South Africa’s economy has been unable to address.

“If the market has dropped off, poachers are effectively out of work,” says Markus Burgener, a researcher at Traffic. “They need to get money from somewhere. But their skills, contacts, and networks are all within the illicit economy.”

In some places, poaching is already resuming, with syndicates stockpiling dried abalone until they can smuggle it out. Dried abalone can be stored for years and fetches premium prices in China. “It’s an opportunity for big dealers to get the stuff cheaply,” Burgener says. “People are desperate, and the dealers know they can sell it later.”

On May 9, police arrested two poachers from Hangberg, but local residents reported that as many as 30 divers went out on speedboats, returning with more than a tonne of abalone. And last week, police busted a drying facility in the suburbs of Cape Town, seizing abalone worth more than $50,000.

Even the drop in prices, Joseph says, might lead to a rise in poaching.

“Maybe half the people are not going to dive, but the other half are doubling up,” he says. “Guys are just going diving for longer.”