Global demand for abalone has risen, but overfishing and poaching have decreased natural supplies. In the last 15 years commercial abalone farming has increased worldwide. Production rose from 689t in 1989 to 8 696t in 2003. The industry is currently worth more than US0 million (about R1,9 billion) a year. South Africa is among the world’s major producers, including Japan, China, Taiwan, Mexico, Australia, California, and Chile. South supplied almost 10% of global production in 2007. There are over 100 abalone species worldwide, of which five are found on South African shorelines.
But only one, Haliotis midae or Perlemoen, is of commercial value to South Africa, said Aletta Bester, a PhD student from the Division of Aquaculture, University of Stellenbosch. A national treasure A balone is found on rocky shorelines with temperatures around 17ºC. In South Africa, populations are found from St Helena Bay on the West Coast to Kosi on the East Coast. Local production is concentrated in 13 export farms between Gansbaai and Hermanus. Production has increased from 150t in 2000 to 800t in 2007, and estimates for 2010 are 1 500t annually. The local industry is worth R360 million per year, and creates 1 500 direct and indirect jobs, such as supplying kelp for abalone feed, in disadvantaged coastal communities. said comparing these figures with dwindling fishing production, down to 230t for this year, made it clear how important the abalone industry is for South Africa, and reveals the scale on which it operates. Perlemoen has an advantage on the global market due to its natural appearance and consumer preference.
The local market is almost non-existent, but Bester said international opportunities are abundant if international competitiveness can be maintained. The South African abalone industry has therefore formed a consortium, consisting of the University of Stellenbosch’s of the four largest abalone export farms that collectively produce 80% of South African abalone, and the Department of Science and Technology, supplying funding through the Innovation Fund of South Africa. Bester said a breeding programme selecting for faster growth, disease resistance and meat quality is necessary to remain globally competitive. Breeding programmes Until a few years ago, breeding material was selected without considering genetic factors. Brood stock animals were caught at random and mass spawning made it impossible to follow the genetic lineages of individuals.
Now the aquaculture division’s research has made it possible to use genetic markers to compare individual abalone. A performance recording scheme compares offspring with their parents to select the best breeding specimens. Bester explained that this technology makes it possible to determine which parents contribute most to the offspring. Since the research project is still in the early stages, the overall benefits to the industry and conservation of this species are still unknown. Groundbreaking research Groundbreaking research is being done into the genetic enhancement of abalone, with exciting results. Bester explained that genetic enhancement shouldn’t be confused with “genetic modification”, which the consortium is avoiding because of consumer resistance to genetically modified organisms (GMOs). Genetic enhancement only alters genes inherent to an organism. Bester said researchers can identify genes coding for characteristics such as disease resistance and strong growth ability and are able to grow individual cells.
The goal is to develop novel strains of abalone more productive than their wild cousins. This research has important implications for conservation. Bester explained that abalone populations may have genetic variations linked to specific locations. Saldanha Bay perlemoen aren’t necessarily genetically the same as perlemoen from Cape Recife. When commercial abalone is used to restock natural populations, great care is needed to keep the genetic integrity of the wild stocks intact. Poaching abalone is big business in South Africa, but also a serious threat to our biodiversity. Bester said media coverage and lucrative syndicate-run trade have created a snowball effect, escalating poaching. She estimated the illegal trade to be over a 100t annually. Poachers destroy whole populations before moving to a new location, and this, according to Bester, could result in gene pools being lost for ever. Contact Aletta Bester or Davie Brink on (021) 808 5838, or e-mail [email protected] or [email protected] |fw