The South African sea snail, a source of curiosity, has become a sought-after delicacy in Asia, leading to a path of devastation

Located in Hawston, South Africa, it is a common sight to see boats sitting in the yards of nearly every house, with some even having two.

However, upon closer inspection, it becomes apparent that many of these boats are no longer in use, with grass growing through holes in their hulls, indicating that they have not touched water in years.

These boats serve as reminders of a bygone era, when the people of Hawston relied on fishing for their livelihood and the ocean provided an abundance of resources.

The economic challenges faced by the community can be attributed to the changes in the market for South African abalone, a highly sought after sea snail in East Asia.

The once plentiful and delicious abalone has led to 30 years of hardship for the fishing communities along Africa’s southern coast, with the demand for this delicacy causing the village and its traditional fishers to either go out of business or become overnight criminals.

The impact of these changes has been profound, as evidenced by the numerous boats now sitting idle in the yards of Hawston.

Raphael Fisher was born into a family deeply entrenched in the fishing industry, a common occurrence in the coastal town of Hawston. Growing up, he spent his days diving for the prized abalone, known affectionately as “perly” by the locals, in the rocky coves of South Africa.

By the time he reached his late teens, he was already honing his skills in operating his father’s boat, fully embracing the traditional way of life in his community.

In Hawston, every young boy aspired to become a perly fisher; it was the epitome of success. However, the once-thriving industry has been plagued by a surge in poaching activities over the past thirty years.

Poachers have been ruthlessly harvesting every snail they can find, selling them for a hefty sum of $50 per kilogram. This relentless exploitation has led to a drastic decline in the population of the endangered South African abalone, reaching unprecedented low levels as reported by wildlife groups.

The future of the abalone fishing industry in Hawston is now uncertain, as the community grapples with the devastating impact of poaching on their way of life.

The South African government’s decision to ban abalone fishing completely initially caused a significant impact on the livelihoods of many small operators, including Fisher.

However, the implementation of strict quotas has further restricted the rights of these operators, allowing them to catch only 120 kilograms of abalone per year.

This drastic reduction in fishing opportunities has left many feeling disillusioned and frustrated, as they believe that their means of earning a living has been unjustly taken away from them.

Fisher’s statement about the situation, expressing how the government has essentially taken the bread out of people’s mouths, reflects the deep sense of loss and hardship experienced by those in the abalone fishing industry.

The shift in regulations has undoubtedly transformed the landscape of abalone fishing in South Africa, leaving many struggling to adapt to the new reality.

The issue of poaching, particularly for the purpose of subsistence rather than for large profits, has become a significant problem for traditional fishers along the coast.

The temptation to engage in this illegal activity has proven to be a challenge for many individuals who rely on fishing as a means of providing for themselves and their families.

The Global Initiative Against Transnational Organized Crime’s 2022 report shed light on the magnitude of this issue, revealing that the illegal trade funneling into the hub of Hong Kong was valued at almost $1 billion during the period from 2000 to 2016, and is continuing to grow.

This alarming statistic underscores the urgency of addressing the root causes of poaching and finding sustainable solutions to support the livelihoods of traditional fishers while preserving marine ecosystems.

It is imperative that concerted efforts are made to combat this illicit trade and provide alternative means of income for those who have been lured into poaching out of necessity.

It is quite interesting to note the stark contrast between the luxurious consumption of South African abalone in high-class restaurants in Hong Kong and the troubles faced by the fishing community in Hawston, South Africa.

While the affluent in Hong Kong are willing to pay a hefty price for this delicacy, the local fishermen in Hawston are struggling to make ends meet due to the declining population of abalone and the illegal poaching activities that have plagued the industry.

It is important to acknowledge the cultural significance of abalone in Chinese cuisine, where it is believed to bring wealth and good luck.

However, it is equally important to consider the ethical and environmental implications of the excessive demand for this delicacy, especially when it comes at the cost of the livelihoods of fishermen in places like Hawston.

As consumers, it is our responsibility to be mindful of the impact of our choices and to support sustainable and ethical practices in the seafood industry.

The International Union for Conservation of Nature has recently released a report indicating that nearly half of all abalone shellfish species worldwide are facing the threat of extinction.

This alarming statistic is attributed to various factors including pollution and climate change, contributing to the larger issue of devastation of marine wildlife.

Danie Keet, chairman of the Community Against Abalone Poaching group, has been a witness to the detrimental impact of gang-related abalone poaching in the South African coastal town of Gansbaai for over 15 years.

The poachers operate in a highly organized manner, arriving in groups during daylight hours with pickup trucks and wetsuits, towing rubber duck boats behind them.

Divers extract the abalone from the reefs and transport them to shore in bags, while runners conceal them in the dunes for further distribution to stash houses.

The operation is closely monitored by lookouts who keep a watchful eye for law enforcement and are equipped with cellphones sealed watertight in condoms to communicate with the divers.

This level of organization and sophistication in abalone poaching poses a significant challenge to conservation efforts and underscores the urgent need for action to protect these endangered species.

The illicit wildlife trade is a lucrative business, with an estimated annual revenue of $60 million, as reported by the TRAFFIC Wildlife Trade Monitoring Network.

The individuals involved in this illegal activity are the first cogs in a well-oiled machine that operates with impunity due to the lack of resources available to authorities.

According to Keet, the poachers have become emboldened and have adapted their tactics to avoid detection, such as shifting their diving operations from nighttime to daytime.

This shift in behavior reflects a growing confidence among the poachers, as they have realized that they can operate with little risk of being apprehended.

The sheer expanse of coastline that needs to be patrolled presents a significant challenge for law enforcement, further allowing the illicit trade to thrive. It is clear that a concerted effort and allocation of resources are needed to combat this issue effectively.

It is truly disheartening to hear about the struggles faced by the fishing community in Hawston, South Africa.

The story of Mr. Fisher’s father being denied a quota after being a pioneer in the fishing industry for so many years is a stark reminder of the injustices that can occur within the system.

It is evident that the livelihoods of many individuals and families are being adversely affected by decisions made in offices, without consideration for the impact on the ground.

The fact that Mr. Fisher has been able to keep two small fishing boats operational through his job at HIK is a testament to his resilience and determination.

It is clear that the economic challenges in Hawston have led to an increase in crime, and it is heartening to hear that Mr. Fisher is taking measures to protect his assets, including his beloved dogs Zara and Toby.

The decline in the use of Hawston’s harbor due to the scarcity of abalone is a poignant symbol of the changes that have taken place in the community.

The graffiti proclaiming “We Love Hawston” serves as a reminder of the deep connection that the residents have to their home, despite the challenges they face.

Mr. Fisher’s decision to fish his abalone quota as part of a consortium reflects the spirit of cooperation and resilience that is prevalent in the community. His dedication to the fishing industry, despite the challenges, is truly admirable.

It is clear that fishing is not just a job for Mr. Fisher, but a way of life that has been passed down through generations.

His statement, “When it’s in you, it’s in you,” encapsulates the deep-rooted connection that he and many others in the community have to the sea and the fishing industry.

The story of Mr. Fisher and the fishing community in Hawston is a powerful reminder of the resilience and determination of individuals in the face of adversity.

It is important to shed light on these stories and work towards creating a more equitable and supportive system for all members of the community.