Thriving perlemoen farms are an entirely new breed
The industry is said to have created more than 2,000 quality jobs in economically depressed coastal areas
Abalone aquaculture is quietly booming, countering poaching, creating jobs and generating a lucrative blue economy revenue stream.
Underpinned by research that started two decades ago by Rhodes University fisheries expert Professor Peter Britz, SA’s shore-based perlemoen farms are now exporting 2,000 tons of produce annually to China, twice the volume produced by farms in that country.
Based on 15-year rights allocated by the department of agriculture, forestry and fisheries (Daff), the perlemoen is sold at $40 per kilogram, bringing in $80m or R1.2bn a year for the 12 farms in the Eastern Cape, Western Cape and Northern Cape.
Britz said perlemoen farms employed one person a ton produced and the industry had created more than 2,000 quality jobs in economically depressed coastal areas.
“In the Eastern Cape in the Haga Haga area, a single perlemoen farm, Wild Coast Abalone, employs more than 200 people.”
The breeding of perlemoen had made it possible for hatcheries to boost the production of wild perlemoen, and Daff had permitted the seeding of hatchery-reared perlemoen in select areas depleted by poaching, he said.
“The growing of this hatchery-reared perlemoen is termed ‘ranching’, and three pilot ranching zones have been identified in the Eastern Cape supported by research at Rhodes, Nelson Mandela and Fort Hare universities.
“Initial results are promising, indicating that it is possible to reseed depleted reefs with hatchery-reared abalone and reduce poaching through a combination of private security and state law enforcement.”
Britz, who began researching the perlemoen sector nearly two decades ago, started by researching onshore farming technology and feed development.
“It was becoming clear even at that stage that the battle against perlemoen poaching would not be won if the state was left to protect wild stocks all by itself,” he said on Friday.
“The 500kg-one-year quota system was also not viable, as the permit holders would just collect their allocation in a few days and do nothing to protect the stock or invest in it.
“Farming and now ranching provides a 24/7 presence of people with an incentive to conserve the resource and invest in developing a sustainable enterprise.”
SA’s wild perlemoen range stretches from the Mbashe River mouth on the Wild Coast, above which the water is too warm. It occurs on the West Coast only as far around as St Helena Bay, after which the water becomes too cold.
Perlemoen ranching is also being established on the Namaqualand coast, where the shellfish grow well in the kelp bed ecosystem, but do not reproduce because of the cold water temperatures.
Produce is dried, frozen or canned and then exported to China, Britz explained.
According to a 2018 report by the wildlife trade monitoring network Traffic, from 2000 to 2016 poachers stripped 96 million abalone or perlemoen (from the Dutch word for the layer of mother of pearl on the inside of their shells) from SA waters. The assault on the environmental cost the country R10bn.
According to the Traffic report, this contraband was typically smuggled out via Lesotho or another neighbouring country where it was laundered and then shipped out to Hong Kong as a legitimate export product.
By late 2018 poaching had left reefs largely ravaged, and the possibility of establishing a sustainable harvest was fast retreating, according to Kimon de Greef’s book Poacher: Confessions from the Abalone Underworld.
Britz said perlemoen poaching had declined in the Eastern Cape since the arrest and imprisonment of local kingpins Julian Brown and Morné Blignault. But poaching was raging in the Western Cape, and a considerable overall volume of the shellfish was still being exported illegally, resulting in huge value being lost.
“Poaching has become an acceptable livelihood in some communities, bringing with it organised crime and drugs eroding the social fabric.”
Perlemoen farming and ranching could turn this dynamic around with the creation of jobs in the aquaculture, research, survey, diving and security sectors, he said.
“Perlemoen farming is already established, and the ranching pilot project is looking promising. Together they provide a blueprint which could be rolled out in suitable spots around our coast.
“They can reduce poaching, create jobs, unlock taxes, restore wild stocks and potentially double the R1.2bn revenue we’re already making from our existing farms.”