CAPE TOWN (Reuters) - A South African court sentenced a man to two years in prison on Friday after he pleaded guilty to helping transport 3,243 abalone as part of an international criminal ring that poached tons of the gourmet mollusk.
Rampant poaching has decimated the abalone population in South Africa's coastal waters to feed demand for the high-priced delicacy in Asia, where the mollusks have also been over harvested, forcing buyers to look elsewhere.
Accused Peter Jansen appeared with more than 20 other suspects facing some 530 charges, including illegal possession of abalone, racketeering and corruption in what officials said was the biggest abalone criminal bust in the country's history.
The alleged mastermind, Chinese national Ran Wei, has fled South Africa after police caught members of the syndicate last year and he is being charged in absentia.
In Jansen's plea bargain, he admitted to hiring the car that transported 3,243 shucked abalone -- also known locally as "perlemoen" -- with an estimated value of 300,000 rand ($30,200)to South Africa's commercial hub Johannesburg.
"The seized abalone was clearly not for own consumption but for commercial purposes of exporting and selling," his guilty plea statement said.
Eleanor Yeld Hutchings, a manager at World Wide Fund's marine program, said the abalone industry was an extreme example of a fishery with high levels of illegal, unregulated and unreported catch.
Some researchers estimate that the illegal harvest in South Africa for 2008 was 860 tonnes, more than 10 times the legal total allowable catch (TAC) of 85 tonnes for that year. Comparable levels are believed to have been since then.
"If poaching continues at its current level, and the TAC remains stable for the legal commercial catch, abalone could reach commercial extinction by 2030," said Yeld Hutchings.
Besides poaching in its waters, South Africa, famed for its biodiversity, is also facing a dire threat to its rhino population which are being killed in their hundreds for their valuable horns.
(Reporting by Wendell Roelf, editing by Gareth Jones)