The perils of poaching perlemoen to put food on the table
A young perlemoen poacher is still missing, believed shot by a trigger-happy task-force member protecting the delicacy's dwindling stocks
One Saturday night in August, Deurick van Blerk climbed into his small boat off the coast of Cape Town on another of his illegal fishing expeditions. He never returned.
Investigators are looking into allegations by fellow divers and his family that he was murdered, shot by a special task force during an anti-poaching operation in an increasingly violent battle between authorities and illegal hunters of abalone shellfish and rock lobster.
Perlemoen, also known as abalone, is a delicacy prized in Hong Kong, mainland China and elsewhere in east Asia, where dishes featuring the marine molluscs are coveted at wedding banquets and can cost thousands of dollars. Illegal divers also search for rock lobster which is sold on the local market.
“Deurick and I started poaching when we were 15,” his cousin Bruce van Reenen told AFP, struggling to control his emotions. “Often we were fishing together, but that night we weren’t. We went on separate boats, I went diving around the corner in Camps Bay and Deurick went to Cape Point for lobster that night.”
Divers such as Van Blerk and Van Reenen can earn hundreds of dollars for a successful night’s fishing. But it is a fraction of what the dried perlemoen is worth on the markets of Hong Kong, with prices reaching thousands of dollars per kilogram.
Over-fishing started affecting perlemoen stocks as early as the 1950s, but it was not until the mid-1990s that rampant poaching began to take a grave toll.
George Branch, a marine biologist at UCT, said that since commercial harvesting began, perlemoen stocks have been reduced to a quarter of what they once were. And West Coast rock lobster has dwindled dramatically to just 2.5% of its original population.
Van Blerk’s two fellow crew members that night say he was shot during an anti-poaching enforcement operation that left bullet holes in the boat. They have since filed a criminal case against the authorities for attempted murder
“Perlemoen is going almost entirely to East Asia, predominantly Hong Kong,” said Markus Burgener of Traffic, an NGO that monitors wildlife trade. Retail prices in Hong Kong for dried South African perlemoen vary from $300/kg to more than $10,000, he said.
“It is ultimately being consumed in China because that is where the greatest demand lies,” he explained, saying there were huge numbers of people involved in the commodity chain. “The real issue is that there are thousands of people involved. It just can’t be sustainable.”
Rare source of work
Van Blerk’s family live in Hangberg, a poor coastal community on the edge of Hout Bay, where perlemoen and lobster poaching is a rare source of work. “It’s a threat for me also because they are shooting at us now,” his cousin said. “But what can I do? I must go on, it’s my life. “I lost a cousin, unfortunately, but my life must go on because otherwise, my child will go hungry.”
Van Blerk’s girlfriend was pregnant when he disappeared, and has since given birth to a baby girl. She had waited for him to return at dawn, ready with his regular morning coffee, but she has heard nothing, and there has been no body found.
Van Blerk’s two fellow crew members that night say he was shot during an anti-poaching enforcement operation that left bullet holes in the boat. They have since filed a criminal case against the authorities for attempted murder.
Khaye Nkwanyana, spokesperson for the department of agriculture, forestry and fisheries, said investigations are ongoing and that the task-force “should only fire in self-defence”.
Community activist Roscoe Jacobs said local people see poaching as one of the few ways out of poverty. “It’s not something that people want to do, but because of our socio-economic conditions, it’s something we are forced into. You really do it because it’s either that, or do I go and rob somebody? It’s something that you do at your own risk.”
Jacobs defended poaching, saying that “conservation needs to be considerate of people”. “We’ve been living off these resources for more than 300 years and we will live off these resources for 300 years to come.”
The illicit quarry draws divers into a deadly world of gangland violence and international crime syndicates. In September, South African police seized a truck heading to Botswana carrying 10kg of perlemoen with an estimated street value of $400,000.
And last year, Chinese authorities broke up a smuggling ring in the southern city of Guangzhou, which was attempting to shift $115m in seafood, including perlemoen.
China’s growing middle-class has a near insatiable appetite for abalone. In Shanghai, one infamous restaurant bill recently charged $14,700 for a dish for eight people called “half-headed abalones with frozen sake”.
“Middlemen sell it to a syndicate of Chinese buyers,” one source with knowledge of the trade said. “The middlemen make the real money, not the poachers.”