Kimon de Greef, The Guardian –
The seafood delicacy can sell for £420 a plate in China. As demand outstrips legal supply, divers from the poor suburbs of Cape Town are making up the shortfall.
A muscular, bald man moved through the kelp, hunting forbidden shellfish. His scuba rig bubbled and hissed. He was nearly 100 metres from the seashore and 20 metres below the surface, which was grey and flat like a lake. The water was clear, giving far range of sight. Below him the seafloor spread out until it blurred into nothingness.
It was dangerous territory, but Shuhood (not his real name) accepted the risks. For more than a decade he’d been an abalone poacher, lifting a marine snail worth hundreds of pounds per kilo in Asia from reefs around South Africa. The first time he’d used scuba gear, without training, he’d almost drowned, held down by his weight belt and a mesh bag stuffed with abalone. Another day, his air hose broke underwater, and he blacked out as he swam up to the surface. One night the skipper of a boat he was working on ran him over while fleeing a police patrol vessel, and Shuhood was almost chopped by the propellers. Months later, a poacher was decapitated in a similar incident off Robben Island.
On this afternoon in 2015, Shuhood was in False Bay, on the opposite side of Cape Town’s southern peninsula. The area is home to one of the world’s greatest concentrations of great white sharks. At least six shark attacks had been recorded in the previous decade, three of them fatal. Two people had been killed just a few hundred metres away, at Fish Hoek beach. “You try not think about it,” says Shuhood, who is in his mid-forties. “You’re always aware, but if you think shark, shark, shark you’re not gonna get any work done.”
But his partner that day was less composed. Adam was an overweight young shoe salesman and it was only his third dive. Shuhood had banned his own son from poaching, but Adam was more difficult to deter. He’d begun working for his father, Shuhood’s former brother-in-law, who also poached abalone; it was Adam’s job to drive their catch to buyers in the fishing settlement of Hout Bay. There he’d met poachers his age and been impressed by their lifestyles, even more so against the poverty of their neighbourhood, a knot of tenements and shanties rising above the harbour. The poachers drove fast cars and wore expensive trainers. The sea, they often said, was their bank. Their abalone sold for more than £20 per kilo on the black market; in a single dive they could earn the monthly salary of a teacher, roughly £750. Without telling his father, Adam saved up for second-hand scuba gear. “If we didn’t teach him,” says Shuhood, “he was gonna go with someone else.”
Now Shuhood and Adam were alone, with Shuhood’s younger brother standing lookout on land. The two divers worked facing each other, watching for sharks behind each other’s backs. The reefs near to shore had been cleaned out by other poachers, but they’d found a good patch of abalone further out. Many of the shells were wider than soup bowls, clamped fast against the rocks. To loosen them, the men used metal levers before shucking the abalone (prising them from their shells) and tossing them into their bags. “Next thing, I saw his terrified eyes in the goggles, looking past me,” Shuhood says. Circling them was a great white shark.
Abalone is found on the coastlines of every continent except Antarctica. Prepared correctly, its flesh is tender, with a buttery seafood taste. In many countries this has rendered the creature a delicacy, often to its detriment. Channel Islanders know abalone as the ormer and may only hunt for it during strictly regulated “ormering tides”, so severely have stocks declined. In 1969, police in Guernsey effected Britain’s first underwater arrest when they caught a man ormering illegally at St Peter Port harbour. Yet nowhere on Earth is abalone more coveted than in China, where it has been associated with status for more than 2,000 years, first as a mainstay of royal banquets and more recently as an aspirational food for the middle class. This has given rise in South Africa to an illicit trade in the mollusc, driven by high prices and pervasive inequality. (As measured by the Gini coefficient, South Africa is the world’s least equal society, and half the population is considered chronically poor.)
Along with shark fin, sea cucumbers and the swim bladders of certain fish, abalone is regarded as one of four “marine treasures” in Cantonese cuisine, served to honour guests or celebrate special occasions, particularly over Chinese New Year. A dish containing all four ingredients is called Buddha Jumps Over the Wall – the story goes that a monk, purportedly vegetarian, leapt over onto someone’s property when he smelled it cooking. In Hong Kong, premium versions can cost £420.
On its own, abalone is usually braised in a rich broth. Its price varies greatly by size, form and country of origin. Dried abalone, which has fuller flavour, is more expensive than live, fresh, frozen or canned product. Japanese abalone, meticulously air-dried, is considered best of all, with South African abalone – a species found nowhere else on Earth – typically next. “Japanese abalone will be on the front page of the menu; South African will be on the second,” explained Lau Chun, chef at Kin’s Kitchen, an upmarket restaurant in Hong Kong. (Chun sources his abalone legally, though there are no laws preventing his suppliers buying poached product.) “If Japanese abalone is a Mercedes, South African is a Honda – reliable, good value.”
The strength of this reputation is evident in Hong Kong, the nexus of China’s luxury seafood market. South African abalone sells in all the dried seafood stores, hardened into tough nuggets that must be rehydrated, like shiitake mushrooms, before serving. The city’s biggest beer promotion last summer, for a pale lager called Blue Girl, offered South African abalone as a prize. According to research by Traffic, a nonprofit group that monitors illegal wildlife trades, nearly two-thirds of the dried abalone entering Hong Kong each year originates in South Africa. Of this total, an estimated two-thirds is from the black market.
The illicit trade is controlled by Chinese criminals, who source their product from local gangs, often in exchange for drugs such as methamphetamine – known as tik in South Africa – or its chemical precursors. Abalone is dried in clandestine cookhouses in South Africa before being sent to Hong Kong, usually via neighbouring African countries with laxer borders and no laws for policing the abalone trade. Trucks routinely cross into Namibia or Zimbabwe or Mozambique with abalone in false compartments or hidden among boxes of dried fruit. It is a bizarre supply chain, from the shores of South Africa to plates in China.
In the last 25 years, according to Traffic, syndicates have exported more than 50,000 tonnes of the shellfish, equivalent to some 130 million abalone. The annual illicit catch exceeds 3,000 tonnes, averaging eight tonnes every single day. The legal catch, set by the South African government, is 30 times smaller. Selected at random, a piece of dried abalone in Hong Kong is most likely to have been poached by divers such as Shuhood.
This has pushed the species towards the point beyond which harvesting it will no longer be profitable for the legal industry. Abalone once smothered shallow reefs along South Africa’s western and southern shores. Now only traces remain: small patches and scattered individuals that have escaped detection or are too dangerous to reach. Already the government has suspended recreational harvesting and briefly closed down the legal fishery, though in the face of rampant poaching neither step reduced pressure on stocks.
Authorities arrest poachers or confiscate poached abalone almost weekly, but this has had little deterrent on an industry that employs more than 5,000 people. According to Markus Burgener, a researcher at Traffic, poaching has steadily increased over the past five years, and is now at its highest-ever levels. Multiple agencies share responsibility for stopping poaching – including the police, fisheries department and national parks service – but they are chronically short-staffed and plagued by corruption. For most poachers, jail terms are seldom longer than a year, and convictions are rare in South Africa’s overburdened court system. Few kingpins controlling the trade, whether Chinese or South African, are ever caught.
Shuhood had seen a great white once before, minutes after climbing out the water at Robben Island. It was late and he’d shone his dive lamp off the boat, a five-metre inflatable. “That shark was longer than the boat,” he told me. In False Bay, the animal swimming towards him was half the size, he guessed, but still would have weighed more than 500 kilos. It moved lazily, swinging its tail from side to side. Its jaw hung open, and Shuhood could see its teeth.
He signalled to Adam and kicked towards a boulder. They’d moved beyond the kelp and were exposed. With their backs to the rock Shuhood showed Adam the quick-release clips on his scuba rig. “We used our cylinders as shields,” says Shuhood. “The only thing a shark won’t be able to bite.”
Minutes later, the shark left them, fading into the murk of the sea. Shuhood pulled on his rig to resume work. “At the end of the day, everybody is a bit scared of sharks, but are you gonna let your fear overpower you?” he tells me. But Adam was petrified, waving at his uncle to return to the surface. “I needed to speak to him,” says Shuhood, “so I went up.”
In False Bay, great whites habitually hunt seals from below, striking at speeds reaching 10 metres per second; often this launches them clear of the water. “You’re on top and you don’t know what predators are underneath you. It’s safer to be down there so you can watch them,” Shuhood says.
Adam was crying when they broke the surface. “Please, uncle,” he begged. “Please, let’s get out.”
Underwater, Shuhood had seen Adam throw his mesh bag away. Now Adam told him that he had dropped it by mistake. “I can’t work, uncle. I lost it. Please, can we go.” Right then Shuhood slapped him, “not hard, just to get him out of his panic”. To his nephew he said: “Do you want to return to shore alone?”
Shuhood’s brother, waiting on rocks below the railway tracks, was dwarfed by the distance. Beneath them the water dropped into darkness. Adam followed Shuhood back under until their cylinders were empty. He sold all his diving gear the next day, and never poached abalone again.
The abalone spends its adult life peeping out over a muscular foot. Its tiny face has eyes on yellow stalks and a puckered mouth with two tentacles. Pressed against a glass aquarium – at Chinese restaurants that sell live abalone, for instance – this mouth looks strangely expressive, as if it is flung open in song. Because of its face the creature is easier to identify with than, say, a mussel, but this does not in the least bit trouble divers like Shuhood.
The natural diet of the abalone consists of kelp and other seaweeds, which it methodically abrades with its tongue. The residue passes through its digestive tract, foul-smelling and bitter. “First thing you do after shucking,” says Shuhood, making a quick movement with both hands, “is twist off the guts.”
The shell grows in a clockwise spiral, a row of ventilation holes perforating its leading edge. Its shape is described by the scientific name shared by all abalone species: Haliotis, from the Greek for “sea” and “ear”. The outer surface is rutted and grey, the inside pearlescent and smooth. Perlemoen, the Afrikaans name for abalone, is derived from the Dutch for mother of pearl. There is an exquisite beauty to the shell, used since ancient times for jewellery, yet it is the flesh of the abalone, composed chiefly of its broad foot, that has made it so valuable. The result is a smuggling epidemic of snail feet, for displays of social status.
Before Chinese demand boomed, abalone had more ordinary value in South Africa – an item of subsistence, cheaply available. The shells were so abundant that people used them as ashtrays. Now, harvesting abalone for personal use is illegal, and the only restaurants stocking it serve Chinese tourists, displaying the creatures in large tanks. The going rate is £130 per kilo, including the weight of the shell. Ostensibly, the abalone is sourced from farms or the shrinking legal fishery, though poachers say certain restaurants buy directly from them. Here, the procedure is different: instead of shucking the animals, divers keep them alive in buckets of saltwater. “When the tourists arrive,” said the owner of one restaurant, who keeps invoices for all her abalone to demonstrate that it is legal, “they charge over to the tanks. They take pictures with the abalone. People get very excited.”
On a recent Saturday, some poachers in Hout Bay’s fishing settlement, where Shuhood sold most of his abalone, demonstrated how they prepared the shellfish. In a dusty yard strewn with trash, they lit a fire and heated a three-legged potjie – a traditional cast-iron pot for cooking stews. Across the valley were expensive homes, predominantly owned by white people. The abalone had been harvested the night before by divers at Robben Island. Between three boats, the men said, nearly a tonne had come in. “People here ask the divers to keep a few on the side for them,” one of them said. “Abalone is like a staple food for us.”
They had 10 pieces of shucked abalone in two plastic bread packets. The flesh was slimy and pale brown, with grey-green frills. One man scrubbed the pieces clean with a knife before cutting thick slices. Someone else chopped onion and green pepper into the pot, sprinkled in some masala blends and black pepper – the precise recipe was to remain secret, he said – and added the abalone to soften. Beside the fire was a big lobster, also caught illegally the night before. Finally he poured in a bag of cheap seafood mix – mussels, calamari offcuts, shrimp, imitation crab –and shut the lid.
While we wait, the men open quarts of beer, roll joints and exchange views on the mollusc they are about to eat.
“Seafood is seafood. There’s nothing special about this.”
“People didn’t put monetary value on it before.”
“Nothing tastes like perlemoen. It’s like you’re eating butter.”
“Die geheim is in die sleim.” (The secret’s in the slime.)
When the potjie is ready, they serve it in abalone shells lined with paper plates, to stop the sauce dripping through the holes. Someone runs to buy a packet of white bread. Other men arrive, drawn by the smell.
“Not anyone can afford this,” one man says, licking his fingers. It happens to be the day of the royal wedding. “Eating for free, I feel like Lady Diana.”
Some names have been changed. Poacher: Confessions from the Abalone Underworld by Kimon de Greef and Shuhood Abader is published next month. Kimon de Greef was supported by a grant from the Africa-China Reporting Project, managed by the University of the Witwatersrand.
Why abalone is so prized in Chinese cooking
The Chinese have regarded abalone as a delicacy since ancient times. They were a favourite food of Cao Cao, the wily Han dynasty warlord (and villain of the classic novel Romance of the Three Kingdoms), and have been mentioned in histories, poems and cookbooks through the ages. Fresh abalone have traditionally been eaten in coastal regions and are now more widely available, while cooked, dried abalone, especially those dried by specialists in Japan, have the greater social cachet. Tinned abalone are much easier to prepare but regarded as inferior.
In the old Sheung Wan district of Hong Kong, dried seafood merchants display jars of perfect abalone, graded by size, their golden, faintly translucent shell muscles surrounded by rough ovals of darker frills. Whole dried abalone are one of the great Cantonese dried seafood delicacies. They are graded according to the number of “heads” that make up a total weight of one catty or 500g: the finest, and most expensive, are two-head abalone at around 250g apiece; the greater the number of heads, the smaller the abalone.
Laboriously reconstituted and cooked in luxurious stocks and sauces, dried abalone are fabulously expensive and enjoyed for their delicious flavour and intriguing texture. Sometimes they are cooked with other seafood delicacies such as sea cucumber and fish maw. Their most famous proponent is the “Abalone King”, Yeung Koon Yat of Hong Kong’s Forum restaurant, who has been impressing customers (including Deng Xiaoping and Jacques Chirac) with his slow-cooked abalone for more than 40 years. (Fuchsia Dunlop)