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« China's Hu takes eight-nation tour to Namibia | Main | Côte d'Ivoire foes look to restart peace process »

February 05, 2007

South Africa tries to curb Asia's abalone cravings

Story Highlights
• South Africa's abalone is a desired commodity for entrepreneurs and criminals
• The amount of illegal abalone confiscated in South Africa has skyrocketed recently
• Abalone farming accounts for 60 percent of the country's aquaculture revenues
• The government has drastically reduced the total allowable catch in the wild

POSTED: 9:33 a.m. EST, February 5, 2007

CAPE TOWN, South Africa (Reuters) -- Shipped halfway across the world to Asia as a seafood delicacy, abalone has become a prized commodity for South African entrepreneurs as well as criminals who have poached the mollusk almost to extinction.

Known colloquially in South Africa as "perlemoen," abalone is so endangered the government has drastically reduced the total allowable catch in the wild and attempted to encourage saltwater farming of the curlicue-shaped shellfish.

Once sucked from its hard shell, abalone has a soft but chewy flesh that is consumed in a variety of ways, but mostly steamed, grilled or, for the more adventurous, as a sushi dish.

Resembling a giant limpet and a distant relative of garden snails, it thrives only in oceans or special land-based farms that use seawater to cultivate the creatures.

Illegal abalone
Abalone's growing popularity in Asia, where it is a status symbol and reputed aphrodisiac, has spurred sophisticated smuggling rings, some linked to China's notorious Triad gangs, according to South Africa's Institute of Security Studies.

The amount of illegal abalone confiscated in South Africa has skyrocketed to more than 1 million shellfish from a mere 21,000 in 1994 when the country held its first democratic elections.

It is now common for police to pull over trucks, sometimes refrigerated, carrying illegal abalone on the roads of the Western Cape and Eastern Cape provinces, where most of the delicacy is harvested.

"We've had good successes, especially towards the end of last year, where we seized huge quantities of abalone ... this is just the tip of the iceberg," said Capt. Billy Jones, a spokesman for the Western Cape provincial police.

But legitimate businesses also see a future in abalone farming in South Africa.

Economic value
Production accounts for 60 percent of the country's aquaculture revenues. In 2006 it was worth more than 141 million rand ($19.7 million) and employed about 800 people.

"Abalone farming has the highest economic value as compared to all other farmed products and is the highest employer within the marine aquaculture sector," said Blessing Manale, spokesman for South Africa's department of environmental affairs.

He said the department hoped job losses in shrinking abalone fishery could be offset in the burgeoning farm-raised sector, which last year produced 900,000 kilograms (2 million pounds) of abalone.

Ten years ago production was a mere 90,000 kilograms (22,000 pounds).

South Africa exports live and canned abalone, with its endemic Haliotis midae species fetching between $22 and $38 per kilogram on world markets. China and Japan are among the main markets.

Nick Loubser, general manager of aquaculture at I&J fishing company, said the firm was exporting up to 150,000 kilograms of specialty abalone a year from its facility at Danger Point Bay, about 220 kilometers (137 miles) southeast of Cape Town.

The firm's abalone is fed a special diet at a land-based marine saltwater farm until ready for export.

Instead of waiting 12 to 15 years for the mollusks to reach full size, the roughly 10 South African firms in the sector typically sell cocktail-sized versions that take only three to four years to grow.

Not so easy
Loubser said the industry faced a number of challenges, including concerns about availability of land, conflicting legislation and problems with South African bureaucracy.

"One of the major stumbling blocks at the moment is the fact that the government hasn't declared areas for mariculture. So if you want to start a farm you have to go through a huge amount of red tape," he said.

Pierre Hugo, chairman of the Abalone Farmers Association of South Africa and managing director of Abagold, the country's largest exporter of abalone products, warned the government may be overestimating the potential of abalone farming.

"They think it's easier than it is. One of the models we have been promoting is using the existing abalone farms as a backbone for secondary aquaculture activities - such as seaweed cultivation -- around the farms," he said.

Hugo said satellite farms could also be used to accommodate emerging black farmers, who might lack the finances, technology and management expertise to start a high-tech abalone farm.

The government is working to develop a policy and development plan for the sector, Manale said.

Poached abalone could be reduced or even wiped out, according to Manale, noting there were plans to list wild and cultured abalone as an endangered species under the Convention on International Trade in Endangered Species of Wild Fauna and Flora (CITES).

"This could curb poaching," he said.

Posted by Publisher at February 5, 2007 01:50 PM

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