Gastronomic gastropods or just plain goners

It’s not recorded when the first human stepped into the frigid waters of South Africa’s Cape coast, fished out an abalone and ate it. Certainly it couldn’t have been an enjoyable experience, by today’s standards, yet as a source of protein these distant relatives of snails were excellent. Before long, hunter gathers throughout the region were dipping into the resource, leaving dozens of large middens along the coast piled high with the discarded, soup bowl-shaped shells of their catch.

For 125 000 years abalone, or perlemoen as it is referred to locally, survived well under this subsistence level of exploitation. But in more recent times its subtle flavour and the East’s insatiable appetite for seafood, have created a huge demand. Prices have sky rocketed, reaching R300 a kilogram and more, for the dried flesh. With the promise of such rewards, abalone populations are reeling under heavy exploitation from licensed operators and poachers alike. It’s estimated that poachers could be doubling the recommended legal quotas for the fishery; a situation exacerbated by the poor, previously, disadvantaged, communities that live in the coastal areas abutting the resource. “With poachers potentially able to earn R5 000 a night, its no wonder that people are flaunting the regulations, in this new age, aquatic, gold rush,” says Marcelle Kroese, Marine and Coastal Management’s (MCM) assistant director of compliance.

Kroese and his team of inspectors are tasked with enforcing MCM’s regulations for a suite of commercially important and recreationally targeted species. But few of these are as thorny and difficult to tackle as abalone. Operation Neptune for instance, the combined operation to kerb abalone poaching between MCM and the South African Police Service, regularly faces armed gangs of poachers. Kroese is adamant, however, that the success of this operation and the others like it, is vital to the future of the abalone resource.

Professor George Branch of the Marine Biology Research Institute of the University of Cape Town shares these sentiments. He argues that the outlook is bleak for a species that is intrinsically susceptible to over exploitation.

Abalone are particularly susceptible because they are slow growing and relatively long lived, with some large individuals reaching 30 years old. It takes seven years for an individual to reach maturity and eight years to reach the legal size limit imposed by MCM. But poachers are not concerned with regulations and many of the abalone being removed, are well below the legal size. This means they are unlikely to have reproduced, and will therefore not have contributed to future generations – a tragedy in terms of MCM’s management strategy. Susceptibility is further increased by the shallow water distribution of the species. As professor Branch points out: “just about anybody can enter the water with a mask, snorkel and perlemoen lifter and be successful.”

As if these problems aren’t enough, there are a host of natural changes also occurring in the region. Professor Branch and his team have documented changes in the structure and functioning of shallow water reef communities along the Cape South Coast largely due to a steady, and fairly recent, influx of rock lobsters. These voracious predators have reduced the number of urchins and other grazers by as much as 98 percent in places, which in turn has had knock on effects on algae, with densities increasing by as much as 270 per cent. Unfortunately these changes seem to have had severe effects on the ability of juvenile abalone to survive.

Juvenile abalone shelter under urchins in order to escape being preyed upon by their natural predators. Without this shelter, they’re incredibly susceptible and their chances of survival diminish severely. A concomitant effect of the reduction in urchin numbers has also been an increased level of siltation on shallow reefs.

“This increased siltation interferes with both the growth of coralline algae and the ability of abalone spat to settle,” says Professor Branch. This is a double-edged sword for abalone, which only settle on certain species of coralline algae, and never where the surface is silted up. The bottom line for abalone is: not only are the breeding stocks of adults being severely depleted by over exploitation, but the reproductive success of the species is being severely hampered by natural biological processes.

It was these processes, which prompted Professor Branch to suggest an innovative solution to the poaching problem a number of years ago. He suggested offering local communities and in particular poachers, legitimate rock lobster fishing permits. Rock lobsters occur in sufficient numbers to warrant a low level of commercial exploitation and in exchange for the permit, holders would’ve guaranteed to lay off the abalone. It seemed a win-win situation. Poaching would decline thereby decreasing the mortality of abalone breeding stocks, while at the same time crayfish numbers would be reduced limiting their impacts on the shallow water reef communities and thus increasing recruitment success of juveniles. Unfortunately officials were reluctant to try the experiment. Local fishers became disillusioned with the government’s attempts at dishing out quotas and poaching continued unabated; abalone stocks continued their slippery slide towards extinction.

“And therein lies the real tragedy,” says Rob Tarr an abalone researcher from MCM. “Not only is a valuable resource being fished to extinction, but an entire community is operating outside the law – their children growing up in a climate of lawlessness. What chance do they have of a normal upbringing under these circumstances?” asks Tarr. “It doesn’t bode well for the future of the community or for our attempts at controlling the wonton destruction of the abalone resource.”

Ultimately scientists and managers agree there simply aren’t enough abalone to go round. What’s more, coastal resources such as abalone will not lift everyone in the nearby coastal communities out of poverty, contrary to what certain fishing organisations may argue. The only real future for a viable abalone industry lies in a well-managed fishery, with effective, heavily enforced quotas to prevent over exploitation and poaching. Currently it’s a tragedy of the commons scenario and unless the situation improves, the golden gastropod will soon be gone.

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