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Pacific island pearls

Pearl farming is environmentally friendly and encourages people to value their marine resources (© R Markham/ACIAR)
Pearl farming is environmentally friendly and encourages people to value their marine resources
© R Markham/ACIAR

Pearls adorn some of the wealthiest people in the world, but they can also help fulfil the more modest aspirations of Pacific island coastal communities. With new developments in the region, they now offer one of the most promising opportunities for improving livelihoods.

"In many ways, pearls are the ultimate island export," says Jamie Whitford, who is senior scientist on a project supporting development of the cultured pearl industries in Fiji and Tonga. "They are small, lightweight and non-perishable, therefore easy to transport, and if good quality they have very high value. They are the region's most valuable aquaculture commodity, and there is great potential to increase production in some areas."

The region specializes in black pearls, which come from the blacklip pearl oyster, Pinctada margaritifera. The pearls are in fact produced in a range of colours, most often a shade of grey, but also shades of green, purple and coppery pink. French Polynesia dominates the market at the moment, and earns about US$170 million annually, making pearls its second largest earner after tourism. The Cook Islands also has an established industry that brings in about US$12 million each year. Fiji and Tonga have nascent industries and Whitford's project, which is part of the Australian government's Pacific Agribusiness Research for Development Initiative (PARDI), is aiming to help them. "Our focus is on local employment and businesses," he says.

Pearl farming

Sorting and grading young, hatchery-produced, pearl oysters (© Paul Southgate/James Cook University)
Sorting and grading young, hatchery-produced, pearl oysters
© Paul Southgate/James Cook University

Pearl farming is a relatively straightforward operation. Very young oysters, or spat, are either collected from the sea or produced in a hatchery. They are then grown for two years until they are mature enough to be seeded, which is done by a skilled technician: a small bead is inserted into the oyster which stimulates the oyster to deposit pearly nacre around it. The pearl then takes another two years to develop inside the oyster. Oysters can live for up to ten years, and can be seeded several times, particularly if they have already produced a high-quality pearl of good colour.

Opportunities for local people include collecting and growing spat to sell to the farms, employment at the hatcheries or farms, or working in a spin-off handicrafts and jewellery industry based on lower grade pearls and mother-of-pearl from the left-over oyster shells. "Pearl farming needs a significant financial investment, and takes at least four years before there are any returns, therefore the pearl farmers tend to be relatively wealthy entrepreneurs. But there are good opportunities for local employment and small-scale investment too," explains Whitford. "We are helping communities develop the skills they need to participate, while also helping to build the industry."

Still in its early stages, in Fiji the project is beginning by developing a village-based spat collection programme as the first step towards increasing pearl production capacity in the industry. This includes experimental work to determine the best areas for collecting and growing spat, which depends on water quality and other environmental factors. The project is also running workshops to demonstrate spat collection techniques and identification of species. A later activity will be jewellery-making workshops, using lower grade pearls and mother-of-pearl. With these skills, local people can add significant value to by-products of the pearl industry, which they can sell to the local tourist market or potentially develop a regional export market to other tourist destinations.

The importance of quality control

Pearls are the region's most valuable aquaculture commodity (© Paul Southgate/James Cook University)
Pearls are the region's most valuable aquaculture commodity
© Paul Southgate/James Cook University

Fiji and Tonga are heeding lessons from French Polynesia and the Cook Islands, whose industries faltered in the late 1990s through overproduction and also because they allowed poor quality pearls to enter the market. Whitford explains: "If farmers cannot afford to wait the full four years they may harvest the pearls too soon, when the nacre is still very thin. These poor quality pearls damage the reputation of the local industry, and prices quickly fall. That's why quality control is a very important part of building the industry in Fiji and Tonga, and also why we encourage communities to work with the bigger pearl farmers rather than try and farm the pearls themselves."

In Fiji, the company J. Hunter Pearls is leading the way and setting a very high standard with their pearls and pearl jewellery. Established in 2000 in Savusavu Bay, the company employs more than 40 local workers. "The people own the traditional fishing rights," says owner Justin Hunter. "We provide jobs and other community support. We have a very successful working partnership."

As an added bonus pearl farming is environmentally friendly, and it encourages people to value their natural marine resources. Hunter recognises that his business depends on these resources. "We are all committed to maintaining the pristine marine environment of Savusavu Bay," he says.

Written by: Anne Moorhead

Date published: June 2011


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