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Mainland Appetite for Abalone Sees Prices and Illicit Trade Soar

Prized for their flavour, texture and size, South Africa's abalone stocks are sought out across Asia, with the growing demand from China alone enough to nurture a growing legal trade and an accompanying surge in black-market exports.

Photo: Abalone: Equally beloved by celebrating Chinese families and crystal-meth minded criminals.
Abalone: Equally beloved by celebrating Chinese families and crystal-meth minded criminals.
Photo: Abalone: Equally beloved by celebrating Chinese families and crystal-meth minded criminals.
Abalone: Equally beloved by celebrating Chinese families and crystal-meth minded criminals.

It's one of the most sought after – and pricey – seafood delicacies in mainland China, with farmed abalone fetching between US$30 and $50 per kilo in many of the country's more exclusive restaurants. In fact, China's seemingly insatiable demand for this gourmet mollusc – a dish traditionally served during the festival season and as part of family celebrations – is having a direct impact some 13,000km away in South Africa, where the abalone aquaculture industry is thriving as never before. As in so many other cases where global demand has soared for African commodities, however, the abalone trade is far from problem-free, with even organised crime looking to muscle in on this lucrative sector.

At present Hong Kong, mainland China, Taiwan, Japan and Singapore are the primary importers of South Africa's abalone, which can be exported live, frozen, dried or even canned, with demand typically peaking around the time of the Spring Festival. In recent years, South Africa has become the largest non-Asian exporter of abalone to China and the world's third-largest producer overall. In China alone, the market for South African abalone is predicted to grow from $73 million two years ago to $135 million by 2020.

One of the key reasons for this soaring demand is that haliotis midae – the particular abalone species that is native solely to South Africa's cold coastal waters – is particularly prized for its flavour, texture and size. Another factor in this growing trade is that South Africa's abalone aquaculture farms are able to export significant amounts of the shellfish, while simultaneously sustaining the population of this otherwise endangered species.

As well as being the world's fastest-growing food-production sector, aquaculture has been identified as one of South Africa's priority development areas. In line with this, a major government initiative – Operation Phakisa Oceans Economy – is now looking to maximise the value of the country's marine economy, a development that may well boost South Africa's abalone export sector.

One South African company that has already taken something of a lead in the industry is Cape Town-based Abagold, which currently exports about 400 tons of abalone to Asia every year. Dispatched live, dried or canned, some 80% of its abalone goes to the restaurant trade, with the remainder sold to retailers.

Profiling the typical end-user, Tim Hedges, the Managing Director of Abagold, said: "We are targeting Chinese consumers who enjoy abalone at restaurants on special occasions, with Chinese New Year being the prime example."

Overall, abalone farming is seen as one of the key ways of protecting wild abalone populations, while creating a more sustainable supply of the product. Its popularity abroad and the high prices it subsequently commands has resulted in South African abalone being targeted by poachers, a development that saw its numbers tumble.

In 2007, it received a brief respite when it was placed on the Convention on International Trade in Endangered Species (CITES) protection list. Although it was subsequently de-listed, following pressure from local fishing communities, most commercially traded abalone is now produced in aquaculture farms.

Table: South Africa’s Exports of Abalone to Hong Kong
Table: South Africa’s Exports of Abalone to Hong Kong

Organised Crime

Capable of commanding prices of up to $300 per kilogram on the black market, it is, perhaps, unsurprising that organised crime has long had an interest in the abalone sector. Worldwide, it is estimated that the size of the illicit trade in abalone could be as high as 65% of that of the legal total. From South Africa alone, according to Abagold, about 2,500 tons of abalone is illegally exported every year.

As an indication of the scale of this illicit trade, in February 2017, the South African Department of Forestry and Fisheries seized about $1.67 million worth of illegally harvested abalone destined for export to Asia. Overall, most of the black-market trade in abalone is focused on Asia, with Hong Kong said to be the primary route in.

The problem is exacerbated by the fact that many such illicit abalone exports may be bartered for drugs – particularly methamphetamine – among the international criminal syndicates involved. Commenting on this particularly unsavoury aspect of the trade, Mark Shaw, a South African criminologist and researcher, said: "Illegal abalone exploitation in South Africa has long been linked to the barter trade in drugs across Asia, a development that has reduced the need for cash to change hands."

Mark Ronan, Special Correspondent, Cape Town

Content provided by Picture: HKTDC Research
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