The shells of abalones have a low and open spiral
A diver measures abalone for harvesting on South Africa’s east coast. (Getty)
  • First riots in Hong Kong, and now a coronavirus lockdown in China is hitting South Africa's export abalone market hard, Sea Harvest says.
  • The mollusk is so highly prized that it is poached on an industrial scale – but farming operations, of higher-quality product, are starting to catch up in terms of volume.
  • But with nowhere to sell, smaller farmers are in trouble, Sea Harvest warns.
  • For more stories go to www.BusinessInsider.co.za.

First it was riots in Hong Kong, now a lockdown in mainland China has effectively shut down South Africa's market for abalone – and small farmers could be in trouble. 

"You're still feeding them, your incurring all the costs, but you have no sales," Sea Harvest CEO Felix Ratheb told Business Insider South Africa. "You have to find the money elsewhere."

China halted seafood imports in January after the novel coronavirus behind Covid-19 was thought to have originated in a wet market in Wuhan – though genomic analysis now suggests it spread, rather than started, there.

Even if the ban on imports is lifted, the quarantine and isolation measures in place will still hit consumption of what is locally better known as perlemoen.

See also: A massive 'ranched' abalone harvest is expected off the PE coast – under heavy security

On Monday Sea Harvest reported a small decline in revenue for its shellfish division in 2019. Abalone is a small part of that division that also includes prawns, Ratheb said, and shellfish overall is a small part of a business with a heavy focus on white fish.

However, abalone farming is an important part of government efforts to develop aquaculture in South Africa, under a "Blue Economy" banner – and legal production is now far from equalling the presumed level of poaching 

Sea Harvest itself is at work expanding one its abalone farms, in the Northern Cape, and was counting on perlemoen to help it expand in China, where its fish is not nearly as highly prized. Now it has nowhere to sell.

Abalone production in Australia goes to the market in Singapore, and abalone from South Korea sells in Japan, Ratheb said. China even has some in-country production. But South Africa is famed for growing big abalone, above 110mm, much prized in Hong Kong and on the mainland – which is why abalone farming seemed such a sure-fire money spinner.

Sea Harvest, Ratheb said, is in a position to just keep feeding its abalone, and watch the animals grow bigger. That's not true for others, though.

"The only ways I see the industry surviving, the smaller players, is with government assistance," he said.

"You can't drop the price, if there's a stop in terms of product flowing into a market, you can't do something innovative, you just have to see it out."

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