Thursday, May 20, 2010

Are we Facing an Abalone War?

The recent murder of poachers by poachers in the Overberg may be the first shot in the open of the growing tensions that have been simmering since the ill-advised closure of the abalone fishery in 2008. Holders of commercial abalone fishing rights were unilaterally sidelined by the closure and organised TRIAD-backed groups of poachers took their place immediately as MCM, mired in perennial financial crises, dithered trying to come to grips with the mass-scale poaching that reached approximately 3500 tons by 2009. Between 2005 and 2009, Feike has estimated that South Africa allowed poachers to remove some 12 000 tons of abalone from our coastal waters, worth about R10 billion.

By 2009, a number of the legal right holders had joined the ranks of the growing poaching community as MCM had failed to provide abalone divers with a sniff of the much vaunted "social relief plan", which they later admitted had in fact never existed - MCM and the Minister in charge - Marthinus van Schalkwyk - had knowingly deceived and crooked an entire industry.

The removal of Van Schalkwyk as minister responsible for fisheries and the subsequent removal of the eternally irrelevant Mayekiso as DDG of MCM, coupled with the headline-grabbing promises by President Zuma and "minister-elect" of fisheries, Tina Joemat-Pettersson, in Hawston in November 2009 that the abalone fishery will be reopened on 1 February 2010, signalled for many the dawn of reason... perhaps.

Well, its now the end of May and there is still not a breath of the fishery coming to be. Feike has spelt out the Dummies Guide to Opening the Abalone Fishery on at least 2 occasions on this blog. Its not hard. It requires visionary leadership at MCM, honesty and consultation with the industry and political will.

By June the whole civil service will no doubt don their tax-payer purchased soccer jerseys and head off for the nearest stadium and FIFA sanctioned soccer broadcast. The poachers wish to thank the Minister of Fisheries and MCM for these much needed time extensions as they are desperate to ensure that South Africa exports at least 4000 tons of abalone tax free by December 2010. It is extremely unlikely that right holders will be able to get into the water before August. Why? Well, assuming that Cabinet supports reopening the fishery (and why Cabinet support is needed is unknown as the law is clear - the decision to "reopen" the fishery vests with the Minister of Fisheries in terms of section 16 of the MLRA), the Minister must still publish an amendment to the 2008 Dive Ban Regulations for public comment, receive and consider the comments and then publish the final set of regulations, together with a TAC and fishing schedule (±45 days) and winter is too dangerous for diving. And perhaps most crucially, MCM has yet to conceptualise and budget for a coherent compliance strategy to support the abalone divers.

And this is where the prospect of "abalone wars" rearing its head reminds us of the deep hole we have again dug for ourselves, which is reminiscent of the 1990's. During the 1990's, the lack of government leadership and policy with regard to the abalone fishery led to a series of mini abalone wars in the Overberg and particularly in Hawston. The possibility of more violent and widespread conflict today is very real as the stakes in the trade of illegal abalone are much higher today than they were back in the late 1990's when South Africa was losing a fraction of what is being poached today and the dependence on illegal abalone to fund the Western Cape tik drug trade today is of crucial significance.

We wonder if our intelligence services picked up the possibility of organised gang / TRIAD warfare over abalone in the Cape Town / Overberg areas days before the World Cup is to kick off? If government does not step into this void immediately and effectively, the conflict could quickly spiral out of control right in the middle of the Soccer World Cup.

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