South Africa will lift on Friday its nearly three-year-old ban on commercial abalone fishing, a move that a wildlife group says will send the highly valued and highly poached species spiraling toward extinction.

Known in South African as perlemoen, abalone (specifically the Haliotis midae species) has long been a cash cow for the nation's fishermen, with thousands of tons taken from coastal waters every year. Although there is a legal, regulated abalone industry in South Africa, much of that catch has been illegal; it is caught by unlicensed poachers and smuggled to Asia where abalone is valued as a purported aphrodisiac. Organized crime syndicates, primarily Chinese triad gangs, have been the major players in this field. The Triads often pay for the perlemoen with methamphetamine, which in turn has fueled an increase in violent crime throughout South Africa. In 2006 South African authorities confiscated more than one million perlemoen from smugglers (representing just a portion of the total amount believed to have been poached).

In 2007 and 2008 South Africa took several moves to slow the devastation of its abalone population: First, it lowered the allowable commercial quota for perlemoen, then it added abalone to Appendix III of the Convention on International Trade in Endangered Species of Wild Fauna and Flora (CITES), meaning it could not be exported without a permit. Next, realizing that lowered quotas were not enough, it banned all commercial abalone fishing, a move that affected about 1,000 fishermen.

In previous years South Africa had repeatedly lowered its commercial quotas for abalone fishing because poachers had taken so many of the shellfish from the water that there was little left for legal fishermen, and the species risked commercial extinction (meaning there would not have been enough left in the water to support the industry).

Now, both the commercial ban and the CITES trade restrictions are being lifted, and TRAFFIC International, the wildlife trade monitoring network, says that is a bad move. "Removal of the CITES listing effectively puts South Africa back to the situation in the past where it has to tackle rampant and well-organized abalone poaching, and illegal trade on its own," Markus Burgener, senior programme officer for TRAFFIC, said in a prepared statement. "Such a decision is hard to understand for a wildlife product where almost all of the trade is international and where there are very high volumes of illegal trade. This is precisely the sort of international wildlife trade problem for which CITES was established."

TRAFFIC says it has seen no reduction in the levels of poaching and smuggling for perlemoen, and that opening up trade will only make the problem worse.

South Africa's Department of Agriculture, Forestry & Fisheries declined to answer any specific questions about all of this, but they did make available several dozen pages of documents from their staff scientists who had been tasked with coming up with a way to sustainably manage the abalone population and again allow commercial exploitation of the species. The report acknowledges that current abalone populations might drop with the reinstatement of commercial fishing, but seems to call it a price the government is willing to pay. "Since clearly it is unreasonable to assume that current levels of poaching could immediately be reduced by the substantial amounts necessary to reverse these declines," the report reads, "some degree of further reduction in current abundance has to be tolerated if commercial catches are to be allocated now for socioeconomic reasons. A period of a few years will be needed to effect the necessary reduction in poaching for resource trends to level out and start to increase."

The report goes on to set objectives to prevent abalone populations from dropping "below 20 percent of its estimated pre-exploitation level" with a recovery goal of 40 percent by 2025. It recommends targeting a 15 percent annual reduction in poaching during this time, without which "no real possible." No actual recommendations on how to tackle the poaching problem are made, though.

The report also sets commercial quotas at 50 tons per year from each of the two more fertile perlemoen zones, which currently have estimated populations of 26 percent and 29 percent of pre-exploitation levels. It warns that quotas will need to be lowered if poaching is not reduced in these zones, because "these populations are close to a level at which Allee effects may come into play," meaning deaths would outpace new births and subpopulations would be more likely to go extinct. The report also identifies several other fishing zones, two of which have almost no abalone left and three more at which catches would have quotas between 12 and 20 tons each.

So why has it been so hard to fight poaching during the last few years? "It's largely a question of a lack of leadership, poor interdepartmental collaboration, and a lack of political will," TRAFFIC's Burgener says, who also blames, to a lesser extent, "human capacity and budget constraints." There has also been a great deal of pressure from industry to restart the legal abalone trade, often in the name of maintaining jobs.

What happens next? All we know for sure is that South African abalone will once again be hitting the market legally, and poaching will continue. That doesn't add up to a healthy situation for this rapidly disappearing species.

Photo: Perlemoen by DanieVDM via Flickr. Creative Commons licensed