Perlemoen poaching racket

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They see themselves as the Robin Hoods of the sea, redistributing income to a community left destitute by what they perceive to be unfair government policies in a highly organised, multimillion-rand industry that has plundered the perlemoen reserves of the Eastern Cape.

This is how two researchers at Rhodes University describe the typical Eastern Cape perlemoen poacher in research revealing surprising facts about the magnitude of the industry and the people behind it.

Senior state advocate Martin le Roux told the Port Elizabeth High Court this week that he would rely on the research of two Rhodes academics, Serge Raemaekers and Peter J Britz, when the state presents its case for sentencing of one of Port Elizabeth's biggest racketeering operations next year.

"This is not a case about perlemoen," Le Roux said. "It is about organised crime ... about racketeering."

Port Elizabeth businessman Peter Roberts, his wife and former restaurateur Carolina Roberts, Jonathan Nel, Bruce Burnstein and John Nell were all convicted of being involved in a syndicate that supplied the Chinese mafia with perlemoen in Johannesburg.

The court heard that the months-long investigation culminated in the arrest of two of the syndicate's drivers at the Lebombo border post between South Africa and Mozambique by the now defunct Scorpions in January 2010.

Former Scorpions investigator Johan Jooste explained in papers before court that their investigation was triggered by findings that a number of Chinese cartels were operating in South Africa under a blanket of quasi-legitimate businesses in which non-existent addresses, false identification documents and non-traceable partners played a big role.

Most of these cartels were based in Johannesburg with storage facilities and routes around the country.

Jooste said the suspected cartel members lived in areas where surveillance was almost impossible because of the exceptional security.

"During surveillance operations on Chinese individuals it was evident that the drivers of the abalone vehicles were well trained in counter- surveillance actions, eliminating surveillance teams' vehicles within 10 minutes. The evasion tactics used were extremely efficient," he said.

In their research based on several interviews with roleplayers in conservation and maritime industries as well as self-confessed perlemoen poachers, Raemaekers and Britz drew up a profile of the typical perlemoen poacher.

They found that illegal perlemoen divers discovered a major supply source for perlemoen around 1997.

Following this "a large illegal and highly organised network developed from the urban centre of Port Elizabeth systematically targeted perlemoen reefs across the entire Eastern Cape for transport inland and export to the Far East. The high Asian demand for abalone fuels this exceptionally lucrative trade believed to be run by Chinese triads as well as other national and international organised criminal enterprises", they said in their research paper.

The said that this, coupled with a lack of intervention, had allowed abalone fishing to rapidly boom into a full- scale, highly organised industry run by several syndicates. Port Elizabeth's major abalone resources are between Kini Bay, Cape Recife and Bird Island, with shallower reefs between Cape St Francis and East London.

The researchers profiled the typical perlemoen poacher as predominantly white Afrikaner males aged between 16 and 55. Often adolescents are brought up in the syndicate and start off as helpers or lookouts with the potential of becoming divers.

Cape Recife was considered as the "training ground" for aspiring perlemoen poachers.

"During interviews all questioned the legitimacy of the post-apartheid government and were unwilling to accept the values of the post-1994 South Africa. They felt marginalised as a result of transformation policies and consider themselves to be Robin Hood-like figures as perlemoen poaching had resulted in the injection of money into the local 'white economy'," the paper states.

Research revealed surprising figures of the enormous capital investment in perlemoen in Port Elizabeth, with an estimated outlay of about R32-million in 2005 in boats, which was expected to have doubled by now.

According to the profiles drawn up by Raemaeker and Britz, poachers would typically use high-powered, semi-rigid inflatable vessels known as super ducks that are towed by 4x4 vehicles.

All poaching operations are known by their meticulous planning. Dive locations are chosen with great care and boats are prepared and loaded with dive cylinders, while runners are sent out to monitor law enforcement activities.

Lookouts are placed at strategic points like harbours and police road blocks, and maintain permanent cellphone contact with the boat skippers.

According to the profile, so-called "decoy dives" are often organised to divert law enforcement officials and diversion boats are set up to lead attention away from the vessel actually carrying the abalone, or else runners would swim ashore with the bags.

Shore-based diving, the research revealed, was less organised but often done under the guise of family outings to the beach. The perlemoen would then be transferred by runners through the dunes.

Raemaeker and Britz said in their research paper that Port Elizabeth dive shop owners and dive operators put the number of abalone divers at between

150 and 300 and in 90% of cases selling perlemoen is their only source of income.

An intelligence database from the South African Defence Force put the number of shore divers at about 1500. This includes divers as well as runners, lookouts and drivers.

Researchers estimated about 50 boats in Port Elizabeth were actively used for perlemoen poaching.

According to a municipal database from Port Alfred, 95% of people linked to perlemoen poaching there were white, Afrikaans men who lived in Port Elizabeth.

Due to law enforcement operations and dwindling perlemoen sources in Nelson Mandela Bay, poachers shifted attention to Port Alfred in 2006.

Raemaeker and Britz said that their calculations revealed that perlemoen poaching was highly lucrative in the beginning but due to the depletion of resources poachers are starting to struggle now and would likely turn their attention to smuggling.

They said that in high-demand season poachers can get up to R1000 per kg with payments often made in cash or drugs.

Boat divers could make up to R54000 per dive, which meant that, if successful, a vessel with 10 to 14 divers R500000 per trip. "Resources are now so depleted that divers can only access about 10-15kg per trip," they said.

The average syndicate organised four to six dives per month.

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