Abalone: The World's Most Expensive Seafood
by Sicily Fiennes, Science Writer
The global trade in illegal wildlife now rivals other anthropogenic threats as a direct driver of biodiversity loss. A particularly lucrative branch of illegal wildlife trade is the international trade in seafood.
One of the world’s most expensive seafood is the marine snail abalone. There are around 56 species of abalone globally, found in the oceans kelp forests. As demand has soared, abalone has been dubbed ‘white gold,’ due to the high prices they command as well as the color of their pearly under flesh.
This increase in demand is of considerable conservation concern given that the South African abalone was described as ‘crashing’ as long ago as 2007. Abalone is a keystone species in kelp forest ecosystems. The loss of abalone can have cascading effects on the ecosystem, as has been observed in North California, where a combination of climate change, abalone fishing, and toxic algal blooms have allowed the explosion of purple sea urchin populations which destroy kelp ecosystems and the diversity they contain.
Why is Abalone Traded?
Both fresh and dried abalone is considered a delicacy, particularly in Hong Kong’s Cantonese cuisine. Abalone demand increases for large-scale celebrations such as the Chinese New Year. In some areas of Asia, abalone is also thought to be an aphrodisiac.
In 2017, one fresh South African abalone (80 - 120 g) could cost as much as $250 in China’s and Hong Kong’s restaurants. The first South African export of abalone was recorded in 1953, indicating the long history of abalone trade between South Africa and Asia. South African abalone is the most commercially exploitable species as it contains more meat and is considered to have a fresher flavor and better texture than other abalone species. In their work, The Case of Abalone Poaching along South Africa's Coastline, Minnaar, van Schalkwyk and Kade estimated that 95% of the poached abalone in South Africa was smuggled to Asia.
Demand and Supply
In a recent report, the global wildlife trade monitoring network TRAFFIC estimated that in 2015, 65% of the South Africa abalone was illegally sourced. As with many illegal wildlife products, illegal abalone exportation is controlled by highly coordinated criminal networks. Abalone trade is thought to be the most criminalized wildlife trade in Africa and is wrought with complex sociocultural issues.
In the 1990’s, major drug traffickers monopolized abalone-rich fishing villages. This monopolization resulted in a mutualistic relationship between South African and Chinese criminal syndicates, whereby Western Cape drug lords exchanged cheap abalone for high-value drugs such as crystal meth, which was cheaply manufactured in China. Compounding these issues is the historical exclusion of native South Africans from abalone diving rights, and driven by the potential of high profits in the Far East, many have turned to poaching in the wake of Apartheid.
Quantifying the Abalone Trade
Due to the shifting nature of illicit trade routes, the abalone trade is difficult to monitor. The manipulation of export location is a crucial tactic in the worldwide exportation of many products. Traffickers may smuggle abalone from productive fisheries, such as those in South Africa, into nearby countries such as Mozambique and Zimbabwe where it is re-exported. TRAFFIC observed this tactic and found that 61% of South African abalone exports to Hong Kong came from African countries outside South Africa between 2008–2015.
Abalone trade is also difficult to track when it enters source locations. Abalone is not protected under law in areas of concentrated demand, such as in Hong Kong, hence once any abalone shipments reach Hong Kong, illegal and legal imports can be sold together or declared as legal to and by customs officers.
One solution is to increase the productivity of abalone aquaculture farms to match demand. Some argue that legal farmed meat is of a higher quality, as indicated by its higher initial price. For example, Abagold, a South African abalone company, sells abalone for over $200 a pound, whereas dried abalone sells for an average of $70.
The success of Japanese abalone farms lends weight to the potential for sustainable harvest to meet demand. However, fears of creating inbreeding-induced genetic bottlenecks and the long, seven-year maturation time of abalone render this difficult to manufacture at a large scale. Furthermore, despite producing 127,000 tonnes of farmed abalone in 2015, China is still the world’s largest importer, indicating that aquaculture may do little to curb demand.
On the contrary, the number of abalone fisheries may decline due to other factors. Shellfish populations such as abalone are vulnerable to algal blooms. A red tide in early January affected up to 500 km of the South African coastline, including the highly productive Western Cape fishery. These natural phenomena may have knock-on effects on the global abalone supply chain.
Increasing Legal Protection
Greater international protection may help to deter collusion between traffickers and law enforcement officers. A key priority must be the re-listing of threatened abalone species such as the South African abalone on CITES. The inherent difficulty of tracking abalone trade, due to a pervasive mixing of legal and illegal products, renders its mitigation a challenging task. Cross-border cooperation between importing and exporting nations and their customs and ports authorities as well as increased raids on drying facilities are critical to managing the scale of this trade and ending its abuse.
Beatty, C. R. (2014) The Disturbing War for Abalone, National Geographic. Available at: https://blog.nationalgeographic.org/2014/12/08/the-disturbing-war-for-abalone/ (Accessed: 5 May 2018).
Duggan, T. (2017) Abalone diving banned next year to protect population on brink of collapse, San Francisco Chronicle. Available at: https://www.sfchronicle.com/food/article/Abalone-diving-prohibited-next-year-to-protect-12413652.php (Accessed: 5 May 2018).
Minnaar, A., van Schalkwyk, L. & Kader, S. (2018) The difficulties in policing and combating of a maritime crime: the case of Abalone poaching along South Africa's coastline, Journal of the Indian Ocean Region, 14:1, 71-87, DOI: 10.1080/19480881.2018.1421448
Steyn, P. (2017) Poaching for Abalone, Africa’s ‘White Gold,’ Reaches Fever Pitch, National Geographic. Available at: https://news.nationalgeographic.com/2017/02/wildlife-watch-abalone-poaching-south-africa/ (Accessed: 5 May 2018).
TRAFFIC (2018) Poached Abalone from South Africa is Flowing into Hong Kong Markets. Available at: http://www.traffic.org/home/2018/2/8/poached-abalone-from-south-africa-is-flowing-into-hong-kong.html (Accessed: 5 May 2018).