Minister of agriculture‚ forestry and fisheries Senzeni Zokwana. Picture: GCIS
Minister of agriculture‚ forestry and fisheries Senzeni Zokwana. Picture: GCIS

The department of agriculture, forestry and fisheries is calling for the reopening of environmental courts, where cases of illegal fishing, including abalone poaching, would be prioritised.

SA’s first green court dates back to 2003 in Hermanus, Western Cape, where it was established as a pilot project run by the then departments of environmental affairs & tourism and of justice.

It functioned as a regional court, and had an 85% conviction rate in 2005, a year before the department of justice decided to close it. This was when the department halted all specialised courts, unless they were mandated by a specific law, such as the equality court.

Since then, the reintroduction of environmental courts was first mooted by then environmental & water affairs minister Buyelwa Sonjica, especially to fight water crimes.

The courts were meant to work through dedicated time slots in the regional or district courts, supported by trained prosecutors.

Of particular concern now is the rise in abalone poaching in SA, with sophisticated foreign syndicates at play. This also comes as internal wrangles in the department are believed to have undermined the fight against poaching.

Irregular tenders

The irregular awarding of a tender for abalone distribution is at the centre of a spat between agriculture‚ forestry and fisheries minister Senzeni Zokwana, and the director-general in his department‚ Mike Mlengana, who reportedly was allegedly stripped of "all delegations of authority".

Abalone has a high market value and is one of the most sought-after delicacies locally and abroad. According to the wildlife trade-monitoring network TRAFFIC, the illegal harvesting of abalone in SA has surpassed legal quotas.

According to a 2016 report by Statistics SA, the closing stock of abalone fell 35.5% over a 10-year period, declining from an estimated 5,088 tons in 2005 to 3,282 tons in 2014.

Zokwana said last week fisheries resources available to bona fide fishers globally continue to be poached in a "ruthless manner", and SA was not exempted.

The proposed establishment of specialised environmental courts will boost the fight against abalone poaching.

"We will … approach the department of justice to consider reopening environmental courts wherein fisheries cases can be dealt with specialisation and with the prioritisation they deserve because currently they compete with other cases like murder, rape and assault GBH (grievous bodily harm), which are generally viewed to be more serious than fisheries cases," said Zokwana.

The department of justice was last night yet to respond to a request for comment.

Zokwana said he was "disturbed" that despite his department’s efforts to ensure that stolen abalone was confiscated, syndicates had succeeded in "infiltrat[ing] some of our officials who are colluding to smuggle abalone out of our stores where we keep it.

"Recently our own officials have been arrested for these acts of stealing abalone working with these syndicates.… As part of mitigation, I am looking at measures such as appointing a service provider that will distribute the confiscated abalone to our fishing communities and co-operatives [rather] than keeping them at our government stores."

However, DA MP and agriculture, forestry, and fisheries spokesman Pieter van Dalen said there was no political will in the department to deal with abalone poaching.

"I do not think it is in their [the department’s] interest to deal with the issue because they make money from the abalone that is confiscated," said Van Dalen.

The DA was calling on Zokwana to commit himself to a firm plan on how his department would open the sale of confiscated abalone to public and parliamentary scrutiny.

Van Dalen said in the past seven years he had also argued for the re-establishment of the environmental courts, "but these will only work effectively with specialised [law] enforcement and investigation units in place".