Based on anecdotal evidence from fishers along the coast, some recent (conservative) research analysis - to balance the anecdotes, the near weekly reports of significant abalone busts by the South African Police and conversations with fishery control officers, there is little doubt that abalone poaching continues unabated. The recent arrest of 19 members of a local syndicate appears to have done little to dent the poaching thirst. Then of course we know that the department of fisheries is not particularly interested in curbing poaching. They continue to rely on the proceeds from the sale of confiscated abalone to fund the administration of the Marine Living Resources Fund and fishery control officers are not permitted to work after 4pm or on weekends!
The department also lacks the funds to implement any (even a half decent one) abalone anti-poaching strategy and continues to waste substantial funds on the "military veterans" that they use as additional "fishery control officers".
Now rumours are awash along the Overberg coast that the department's abalone scientists are recommending the closure of two further abalone zones - Zones A and B, which will effectively close all abalone fishing in the Overberg leaving that entire coast free for poachers to plunder. There is no doubt that our scientific advisers are dead right in their biological analysis that because of rampant and unchecked poaching in the Overberg, closure of the last two zones in the area is needed to save abalone.
But is closure the answer? I reckon that what we should be doing is the opposite. I would in fact increase the commercial abalone TAC ... dramatically. I would perhaps start with doubling the TAC for the 2011/2012 season to about 250 tons and do the same again in 2012. I would look at what my fishery control officers (ie those troops on the ground) and organisations such as TRAFFIC and SEAWATCH are saying about poaching trends in Zones A, B, C and D (the closed zones and zones proposed for closure) and increase allocations in those zones. For example, I would allocate no less than 10 tons in Zone A, 145 tons in Zone B, 10 tons in Zone C and 10 tons in Zone D.
I know what you are thinking. I have not lost my marbles. The reality is that since I was head of fisheries management, the "best advice" I received has always been to cut quotas when a resource is not doing well for whatever reason. The same applied and continues to apply to abalone. The small difference back then was that we had the resources to start reducing abalone poaching. Not now. DAFF is resourceless with no known options to reduce poaching.
In 2004, all scientific advice pointed to the need to reduce catch limitations in the Patagonian Toothfishery which was being subjected to significant levels of poaching. However, based on consultations with toothfish right holders, the South African government elected to instead leave the TAC unchanged in order to encourage year-round legal fishing in the area in order to try and displace illegal fishing.
It is along these lines that I am suggesting that instead of abandoning an entire coastline to poachers, keep the legal fishery active in a bid to displace poachers and particularly syndicates. The reality is that after some 8 years of being closed to abalone fishing, Zones C and D have shown no recovery. Yet, it is known that significant poaching of lobsters and abalone continues in these zones.
My proposal would be to establish a formal working relationship between the abalone industries located east and west of hangklip, on the one hand, and DAFF, TRAFFIC and SEAWATCH on the other, with the latter organisations providing a comprehensive monitoring and evaluation capacity monitoring fishing and poaching trends on a weekly basis to determine the trajectory of this project. Should the M&E system indicate potential biological calamity (the criteria for which are agreed to beforehand of course), the Minister always has the authority to suspend fishing, reduce effort or reduce the TAC on a zonal basis on an emergency basis under section 16 of the Marine Living Resources Act.
The usual approach of reducing TAC's and closing the legal fishery has only served up more and more of our abalone to syndicated poachers. I reckon its time for a radical option. What do we have to lose?