Pearls Among the spray of islands speckled across the central and southern Pacific Ocean, French Polynesia distinguishes itself as the 'pearl in the crown', sustaining its second largest industry, pearling, through centuries of exploitation
By Praseeda Nair
The French Polynesian islands include the palm-laden hedonistic haven of Tahiti, which has inspired close to a century of picture-perfect postcards and holiday retreats for the European elite in the roaring 20s. After tourism, the second largest and most historically relevant economic resource in French Polynesia is its black pearl culture, which has seen tough times in recent years. Overproduction, falling prices, and dwindling local interest in the trade have negatively affected pearling across the reef-rimmed atolls, which has prompted environmental groups to study methods to extend the longevity of the trade.
Tahitian legend shrouds the mythic beginning of pearl culture in French Polynesia. In one account, Oro, the god of peace and fertility, descended to earth on a rainbow to offer pearl-bearing oysters to humanity as a gift. This legend is used to explain the iridescence of mother-of-pearl, and the multifaceted properties of the black pearl. Tahitian pearls are not simply "black" as their names suggest, but contain rich blues, purples, greens and other shades in their vibrancy. While they take their name from French Polynesia's most well-known island, Tahitian pearls are cultivates in the island's neighbouring waters.
In the late 1700s, European conquistadors opened trade routes between the isolated Pacific Islands and the rest of the world. Soon, a rush of traders flocked to the region, learning of the water's riches: mother-of-pearl, turtleshell, sandalwood, natural pearls. In less than a century, the pearl oysters of the islands of Gambier and Tuamotu were depleted, nearly to the point of extinction. By 1880, France annexed most of Polynesia. At this point, the pearl rich South Pacific islands were a patchwork of English, French and Spanish-speaking cultures, still entrenched in its native sociolinguistic culture. Under colonial rule, strict regulations were applied to rein in overexploitation of fishing and pearling among these islands. Certain zones were designated as off-limits to allow oyster beds to repopulate. This crude conservation plan has been in effect ever since, identifying the islands and atolls where fishing is permitted, which has led to the migration of divers and their families to other places for work. In the mid-20th century, building on the successful pearl culturing techniques of Kokichi Mikimoto in Japan, experimentation began with the Tahitian oysters. Building on these sophisticated techniques, the first cultured Tahitian pearls came to be. Today, as the coral crown in the middle of an expansive ocean, French Polynesia continues to provide the ideal environment for Tahitian pearl cultivation.
In the first decade of this century, the pearling industry was on the receiving end of a major crisis that was building for a quarter of a century. The price of pearls per gram fell from US$ 100 to below $5 in 25 years, owing to overproduction and muddled routes. Now, this age-old trade is currently undergoing a recovery period, as environmentalists and policy makers attempt to balance demand and supply for the trade's prolonged existence.
The quality and size of pearls depends on the attention and care given to the culture cycle, as well as the cultivation and maintenance of the farming environment. In order to define the ideal conditions extensively investigating the conditions of 'pearl farms' off the coast of Tahiti since 2008. Located 500 kilometres north-east of idyllic Tahiti, the Ahe atoll lagoon has been a central point of interest for scientists keen on preserving pearl culture in French Polynesia, as it spans 145 square-kilometres (kmA) and has supplied nearly 80 pearl concessions last year.
Ahe atoll lagoon
The IRD researchers administered studies to quantify available plankton in the area for oysters to feed on, while monitoring the water flow in the lagoon. The results of the studies are to supplement policies and farming decisions for sustaining the industry.
Assessing the food source available for the pinctada margaritifera (South Pacific pearl oysters), these scientists examined the spatial-temporal patterns of the planktonic communities near the atoll over a year, as well as their reception among the oysters. The results suggest that molluscs retain more than 1% of the lagoon's primary production of organic plant matter. In layman's terms, 80% of what we see as plankton is actually 2 micrometrelong minute organisms that are poorly gathered for consumption by oysters. With nutritionally relevant diet, the oysters can produce higher quality pearls at a steady rate. The research has also examined the region's planktonic trophic network to keep track of its development. In addition to this, IRD studied the water flow in the lagoon to understand how underwateraccording to the lagoon environment, researchers from the Institut de recherche pour le developpement (IRD) have been circulation could influence the dispersion of oyster larvae for its propagation, why certain areas are more favourable for oysters, and other necessary conditions.
We have yet to learn of the long term ecological effects of pearl farming. Oysters have been artificially introduced into several lagoons along with sponges, anemones and other organisms. While the surrounding lagoons contain phosphorus and nitrogen from human activities, research from the 2008 study did not indicate any potent signs of chemical contamination, or of eutrophication, where the oversupply of nutrients leads to the rapid growth of algae, which can deplete the oxygen levels in water. Through years of research, the work on the Ahe toll helps the local players better understand the lagoon environment in relation to the pearl farming industry for enhanced technological and infrastructural developments for the next few decades.
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