Anti-poaching officials netted in abalone swoop
An abalone-poaching syndicate smashed by police this week had its own office and tax-funded vehicles, which were used to prey on the Western Cape coast for almost a decade.
The 19 people arrested on Monday are alleged to represent about nine syndicates responsible for robbing fishing communities of one of their most valuable commodities.
Nine of the suspects are Department of Agriculture, Forestry and Fisheries personnel based in Gansbaai and tasked with enforcing anti-poaching laws.
They appeared in Hermanus Magistrate's Court on Wednesday charged with racketeering, corruption and defeating the ends of justice. It is alleged they turned the department's office in Gansbaai into a criminal base.The 10 other people arrested are alleged buyers and represent several abalone poaching and trading syndicates, each with its own teams of divers, drivers and guards.
Many of the onlookers who packed the courtroom on Wednesday were poachers, eager to hear how wide the law enforcement officials were throwing the net.
That night, the poachers started burning their boats in the village of Pearly Beach.
"They didn't want the police to seize them. They've been burying diving equipment and hiding vehicles. The cat is in the chicken pen," said a Gansbaai detective.
Hawks spokesman Captain Philani Nkwalase said the arrested officials allegedly aided poaching syndicates by selling back abalone seized during patrols and also escorted illegal abalone shipments.
The illegal poaching took place in Gansbaai, Hermanus, Hawston, Stanford, Bredasdorp, Buffeljags and Pearly Beach, and many of the abalone were processed in Kuils River.Nkwalase said Monday's swoop involved police tactical response teams, a special task force, the Asset Forfeiture Unit and the Department of Fisheries' anti-poaching units. Cash and a firearm were recovered.
Marine and Coastal Management officials said that since the arrests there had been no poachers on a stretch of water usually teeming with divers. More arrests are likely.
For the first time since 2008, Gansbaai police station received no calls this week from residents who in the past have complained about hundreds of divers descending on the fast-declining mollusc stocks.
Abalone is now so scarce that it can be found only at depths below 10m.
Poaching syndicates have been able to recruit members from the growing number of people excluded from the formal fishing industry because of dwindling quotas - a problem the government is trying to address with its new, small-scale fishing policy.
Abalone divers can receive as much as R500/kg. Shipments are sometimes hijacked by rival syndicates desperate to make up quotas already paid for by international buyers, specifically from Asia, sources say.