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Black pearls of French Polynesia and the Cook Islands.

According to myth, Oro, the Polynesian god of war, descended to Earth on a rainbow to present a Bora Bora princess with a black pearl. Later, pearls appeared on the mourning costumes of Tallitian priests at the funerals of important chiefs. The commerdal quest for pearls began around 1870 as island divers wearing only tiny goggles plunged effortlessly to depths of 25 30 metres in the Tuamotu lagoons to collect oysters. Finding a pearl this way was one chance in 15,000, with the more realistic objective being to collect the shell popular for mother-of-pearl buttons.

By 1960, however, over-harvesting had depleted the slow-growing oyster beds; today wild oysters are collected only to supply cultured-pearl farms. And the shell is now a mere byproduct made into decorative items. But French Polynesia's cultured-pearl industry has exploded and is currently second only to tourism as a money earner, providing 75 percent of the territory's exports.

Black Pearl Culture

In 1963, an experimental farm was established on Hikuem atoll in the Tuamotus. The first commercial farm opened on Manihi in 1968, but the real boom hit only in the late 1980s. Today hundreds of cooperative and private pearl farms operate on 26 atolls, employing thousands of people.

Unlike the Japanese cultured white pearl, the Polynesian black pearl is formed only by the giant blacklipped oyster (Pinctada margaritifera), which thrives in the Tuamotu lagoons. It takes about three years for a pearl to form in a seeded oyster. A spherical pearl is formed when a Mississippi River mussel graft from Tennessee is placed inside the coat; a hemispherical half pearl can be cultured when the graft is placed between the coat and the shell. Half pearls are much cheaper than whole pearls and make outstanding rings, earrings and pendants.

The cooperatives sell their production at Papeete auctions twice a year. Local jewelers vie with Japanese buyers at these events, with some 60,000 black pearls in 180 lots changing hands for about US$7 million. Private producers sell their pearls through independent dealers or plush retail outlets in Papeete. Every year about a million black pearls worth US$150 million are exported to Japan, Hong Kong, the U.S., France, and Switzerland, making the territory the world's second-largest source of loose pearls (after Australia which produces the smaller yellow pearls). To control quality and pricing, the export of loose reject pearls from French Polynesia is prohibited, although finished jewelry made with reject pearls is exempt.

The industry is drawing people back to ancestral islands they abandoned after devastating hurricanes in 1983. Although small companies and family operations are still able to participate in the industry, pearl production is becoming increasingly concentrated in a few hands due to the vertical integration of farming, wholesaling, and retailing. Robert Wan's Tahiti Pefles now controls over half the industry and the next four companies account for another quarter of production.

Pearl farming relieves pressure on natural stocks and creates an incentive to protect marine environments. Pollution from fertilizer runoff or sewage quickly makes a lagoon unsuitable for pearl farming which is why the farms are concentrated on lightly populated atolls where other forms of agriculture are scarcely practiced.

On the down side, pearl farm workers often feed themselves with fish they catch in the lagoons, leading to a big decline in marine life. Another source of conflict are sea turtles, which crack open the oyster shells to get at one of their preferred foods. To prevent this, wire netting must be erected around the farms, although it would be far easier for the farmers to simply harvest the endangered turtles.

The strings of oysters must be constantly monitored and lowered or raised if there are variations in water temperature. The larger farms use high pressure hoses to clean the shells, thereby attracting anemones which compete with the oysters for food.

Smaller family operations like Kamoka Pearl Farms on Ahe atoll are proving to be pioneers in more ecologically-friendly production, They have designated their lagoon areas a 'fish park' with no fishing allowed. Oyster strands are strategically moved around the fish park on a constant rotation so that the fish clean/eat the potentially destructive anemones from the outside of the shells. Those farms that clean oysters with pressure hoses or by scraping with a knife contribute to the artificial growth of anemones because particles scraped or blown to bits regenerate into more anemones at ever-faster rates. Oyster overcrowding can also create disease hotspots that spread infections to other farms. More research and government supervision will be required if this industry is to flourish in the long term.

Pearl Farming Expands to the Cook Islands

In 1982 research began into creating a cultured pearl industry in the Cook Islands similar to that of French Polynesia. The first commercial farms were set up on Manihiki in 1989 and today over a hundred farms on Manihiki produce cultured pearls from the two million oysters below the surface of the lagoon. By 1994 the Manihiki lagoon was thought to be approaching maximum sustainable holding capacity. Farms have now been established on Penrhyn with hundreds of thousands of oysters presently hanging on racks in the Penrhyn lagoon, and a hatchery adding to their numbers daily.

Oyster farming has also begun on Rakahanga. However, a proposal to establish a pearl farm on uninhabited Suwarrow atoll was rejected in 2001 over fears that the atoll's large seabird colonies would be disturbed.

To build a farm, an investment of NZ$5,000 is required, and no return is expected for five years. There are currently more than 300 farms in the Cook Islands with just 20 per cent of them accounting for 80 per cent of the oysters. Oysters are seeded by Japanese, Chinese, and Cook Islands experts screened by the Ministry of Marine Resources. The pearl industry has reversed the depopulation of the northern atolls and brought a degree of prosperity to this remote region.

Thanks to pearls, Air Rarotonga can afford to operate regular flights to Manihiki and Penrhyn, making life a little easier for the 1,750 inhabitants of the Northern Group. Fortunately a major hurricane at Manihiki in 1997 did little harm to the underwater oysters, although surface facilities were destroyed and 20 people died.

Fluctuations in water temperature and overstocking can affect the amount of plankton available to the oysters and reduce the quality of the pearls. In 2001, a bacterial pearl shell disease outbreak at Manihiki caused by a combination of over-farming and high water temperatures wiped out almost half the juvenile oyster population. Some would say that the rapid growth in pearl farming over the past decade has pushed sections of the Manihiki lagoon well beyond its capacity of oysters. The algal bloom killed 15 per cent of seeded oysters, leading to an estimated loss of NZ$34 million over five years. Despite this setback, annual production is around 200 kilograms and black pearls account for 90 per cent of the Cook Islands' exports, bringing in NZ$15 million a year and employing 700 people. Japanese and Chinese dealers are the main buyers of the official production, and it's believed the industry is actually worth much more as large quantities of pearls are smuggled out of the country each year to avoid customs duties.

Pearl prices are currently falling as production increases and some producers are worried that the boom may already have peaked. The governments of the Cook Islands and French Polynesia are currently working hard to control pearl smuggling, encourage sustainable farming practices, and impose stricter quality controls.

Respected Canadian travel writer, David Stanley, has written guidebooks to the South Pacific, Micronesia, Alaska, Eastern Europe, and Cuba, opening those areas to budget travelers for the first time, His authoritative website,, showcases all his publications. The Black Pearls article is edited from the 5th edition of Moon Handbooks Tahiti (Including the Cook Islands).
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Author:Stanley, David
Publication:Tok Blong Pacifik
Date:Sep 22, 2003
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