four untrained divers, who died over the past few months, were casualties of an entrenched illicit trade: poaching abalone, a seafood delicacy that sells for enormous prices in Asia.

One man vanished diving at midnight. Another was attacked by a great white shark in deep water. Two more drowned, one in borrowed scuba gear he was not qualified to use.

The shellfish, which once smothered reefs in South Africa, in some places packed as tightly as cobblestones, has become more difficult to find as a result of overfishing, luring untrained divers into deeper and more deadly waters.

The old reefs have been hit too hard and haven't had time to recover," said a diver from Hangberg, an impoverished fishing community in Cape Town, who insisted on anonymity because he did not want to alert the police to his poaching. shellfish declining in South Africa, legal quotas on harvesting it are strictly enforced.

But in Hangberg, hundreds of families have turned to the abalone black market for income, as factory closings and the demise of commercial fishing have contributed to a spike in unemployment in recent years.

Abalone has a rich, buttery flavor, and, when prepared correctly, the flesh is tender, though it can be rubbery and tough.

One of the world's most expensive abalone species, Haliotis midae, occurs only on the southern and western shores of South Africa, where its high value, set amid sweeping poverty, has fueled a poaching epidemic since the end of apartheid in the early 1990s.

While first-time offenders may face fines as low as US$10 (S$13), the penalties for kingpins can rise to US$10,000, with prison sentences exceeding 15 years. But for most poachers, jail terms are seldom longer than a year, and convictions are rare in South Africa's overburdened court system.