Shocking Revelations of Blatant Abalone Poaching in South Africa

A couple of months ago, as I flew along the Overberg coast I could not fail to notice a fair amount of what I suspect to be poaching activity… writes marine conservation photographer Jean Tresfon.

These are not recreational divers… out diving in dirty water, on a rough day, in an area well known for poaching. And what’s in the green mesh bag in the centre console?

I counted six inflatable boats, all carrying multiple divers, spare cylinders and sackfuls of what looks suspiciously like abalone.

Also at various places on shore, there were divers waiting at vehicles and more vehicles loaded with all the accoutrements required by divers.

Abalone poaching used to be something that happened at night, in secret and under the cover of darkness.

It is now a mainstream activity, carried out in broad daylight by almost entire communities. This was not an isolated incident.

Diver support vehicles waiting behind the dunes…
Dive gear haphazardly strewn around the deck along with green mesh bags containing what exactly? From the looks of it the chap on the bow is sitting on a bag of abalone..
Divers and vehicles waiting in the parking lot at a remote coastal spot.
Waiting for divers to surface…

And it’s not possible to simply criminalise these communities either.

Tina Joemat-Pettersson, in my opinion, the second most corrupt minister in our government, only beaten by old JZ himself, is famous for having sold SA’s entire strategic oil reserve at ludicrously low prices while serving as minister of energy and then lying about it in parliament.

She is yet to face any sanction for that episode. A lesser-known but equally disgraceful achievement was the stripping of many impoverished coastal fishing communities of their only means of survival, their fishing rights allocation.

These rights were then given out to cronies and cadres, almost all with no fishing experience or equipment, most of whom then rented out their licenses to others for a fee.

With no other means of obtaining an income, these communities have turned to the only thing they know, the sea. It is deep, dark, cold and often dangerous, and it’s hard not to feel a little sorry for the people engaged in this “work”.

The red & white environmental protection vessel spotted at Dyer Island, not far from where all the poaching takes place, yet the poachers appear to operate with impunity.
Again, these guys are not diving recreationally…

But the oceans are being systematically stripped, organised crime is involved and many poachers are actually paid with drugs, leading to a spiral of crime and poverty.

So if I can find evidence of so much poaching on a single flight, why isn’t anything being done about it?

So if I can find evidence of so much poaching on a single flight, why isn’t anything being done about it?

Is it a lack of money or manpower, or simply lack of effort? Given that SA has at least four large environmental protection vessels costing hundreds of millions of Rands I doubt it’s a lack of funding. And given that one of these vessels was moored at Dyer Island, right near a lot of the action as per the photos below, I doubt it’s a lack of manpower.

The answer, I fear, is that some of the very senior people empowered to protect our oceans are complicit in its looting.

For example, a recent report by Beverley Schäfer shows DAFF Deputy Director-General, Ms Siphokazi Ndudane, as outlined in a disciplinary hearing held on 3 September 2018 at the Department’s offices in Pretoria, had 39 charges brought against her. She has been found guilty of, among others, 155 counts of fraud, 37 counts of theft, extortion, forgery, defeating the ends of justice, insubordination, and the contravention of section 217 (1) of the Constitution.

This stunning resume includes involvement in abalone theft of over R20mil, falsifying documents pertaining to the determination and approval of the 2017/18 West Coast Rock Lobster (WCRL) total allowable catch (TAC) and not allowing the police access to department storerooms to audit stolen abalone stocks, and much much more.

Last year a Carte Blanche investigation found abalone poaching is driving the shellfish to extinction. Watch the episode on Showmax.

The rot goes right to the top.

The rot goes right to the top.

And yet just let me try to go for a drive along our coast. I get asked for my permit to SCUBA dive, my permit to film commercially, my skipper’s ticket, my radio license, etc and yet the actual criminals get away scot free.

Not so long ago well known underwater cameraman Charles Maxwell and I spent a day at sea. As we were at the slipway getting the boat back onto the trailer, right next to us was an obvious poaching boat doing the same.

The five TMNP Rangers waiting nearby completely ignored the boat full of poachers and pounced on Charles and me, requesting the multitude of permits we need to simply dive and film under the sea. This was much to the amusement of the poachers, who yelled out “Ja wit mense, nou moet julle haal uit en wys!“. (Yes white people, now you must pull it out and show.)

It has nothing to do with resource protection, and everything to do with revenue generation

Is this the future of marine law enforcement? It has nothing to do with resource protection, and everything to do with revenue generation…

Where does it end? When once functioning ecosystems are destroyed and empty and there’s nothing left to poach?

All photos and text © Jean Tresfon, republished here with Jean’s kind permission. Please view the original post here.

JEAN TRESFON is a South African marine conservation photographer who specialises in aerial and underwater photography. He flies several times a week specifically to keep tabs on our South African marine wildlife and regularly assists the authorities with shark and whale spotting.

To see more of Jean Tresfon’s photos and updates:

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A year ago Carte Blanche did an expose on abalone poaching, featuring the red-handed capture of poachers… brazenly diving in broad daylight with bags of abalone… similar to that described above. At the time Carte Blanche asked: why are authorities still struggling to get this illegal trade under control? (South Africans abroad can watch Carte Blanche by streaming it on Showmax.) It’s over a year since that episode, and tragically nothing much appears to have changed.