Coastal Fisheries Programme

Number 15 - August 2002 


Editor: Neil Anthony Sims

Production: Information Section, Marine Resources Division, SPC, PO BOX D5, 98848 Noumea Cedex, New Caledonia Fax (687) 263818)

Produced with financial assistance from Australia, France and New Zealand

From the editor

We’re back. We know it’s been a while since we last wrote, and we wish that the old adage of ‘no news is good news’ held true. Unfortunately, it has been more of a case of ‘no good news’. Our only possible excuse for the long lapse since POIB #14 – and it’s a feeble one – is that we were waiting for some good news to include in the issue. Any glimmer of good fortune…

The situation has been pretty grim. Even before 11 September a steady downward slide in black pearl prices was forcing even perennial optimists to make a sour reassessment of the growth potential for the industry. Rumours of farms closing throughout French Polynesia were followed by massive layoffs and halting of seeding by Robert Wan. Buyers were reportedly staying away from Tahiti auctions, and there was a general sense of disarray, despondency and uncertainty. Wholesalers were reportedly unwilling to buy larger parcels, because they had no idea where the bottom of the market lay, and they didn’t want to be left, in three months time, holding overpriced goods.

Then there were reports from the Cook Islands of oyster die-offs in Tongareva (Penrhyn) from algal blooms, and heavy farm mortalities in Manihiki lagoon. A Vibrio species was fingered as the culprit in the latter case, and the worst of it passed, but it reminded us all of the fickleness of nature and of the frailty of the animals we nurture. And stories of Cook Islands pearl farmers, urging their politicians to ban the import of Tahitian pearls, reminded us of the fickleness of human nature, and our more base, protectionist urges when the sands start to shift beneath our feet.

There has been sad news as well in the passing of John Latendresse and Ian Turner, each of them grand old fathers of pearling in their own way, and both highly respected and fondly remembered by those who knew them.

There is also increasing competition from cheap Chinese freshwater pearls (CFWP). Not the tiny rice pearls that we joked about for years, but round or near-round, and 8 mm and upwards. Sure, they look cheap, dyed, and over-polished, but the average pearl consumer apparently is not sufficiently discerning. I remember the Keynote Address at Pearls ‘94, when Fred Ward showed a slide of a 10 mm, perfectly round CFWP, and told the gaping gathering that this was where the future of pearling lay. Somewhere between POIB #14 and POIB #15, Fred’s prognostication finally came to be.

There have been some small bits of positive news. French Polynesian authorities initiated some stricter quality control measures over pearl exports, and the market for better-quality black pearls took a positive turn in the wake of 11 September. There were new hatchery successes in Micronesia, new seeding technician training programmes in the Cooks and the Marshalls, and rumours (but no publishable stories) of ongoing expansion in Fiji and Tonga. There has also been a number of exciting pearl papers from the World Aquaculture Society meeting in Beijing. Wayne O’Connor has kindly provided us with a superbly detailed account of the pearl sessions from WAS. It is almost as good as having been there. We include many of these rosier bits and pieces in this issue, to try to counter the generally bleak tone.

In the past, we at POIB have studiously avoided wading too deeply into the waters of pearl politics, marketing and industry management, but perhaps it is time we did offer an opinion or two in this area. We heard a second-hand story (so don’t quote me on this) of a highly-respected biologist who was asked, on an international radio programme, if the picture he was painting of pearl farms stretching across every lagoon from Papeete to Penang might not conflict with some basic economic laws – say, that one about supply and demand – ‘Oh’, came the reported reply ‘that’s not my problem. I’m a pearl biologist, not a pearl marketing expert!’

If it were only that easy. The truth is, these days you have to be both, or you can’t really be either. When building a new farm, we must look for niche markets, or other competitive advantages that a lagoon can offer. When working to promote pearl culture in a country, we must be blunt in pointing out the challenges and risks the industry faces. And when managing existing farms or working in established areas of the industry, we have to be aware of our responsibilities, and the regional context in which we work.

We don’t want to tell people what to do – I’m an editor, not an edicter. However, there is finally a piece of good news that is both instructive and inspiring, and may give some cause for optimism. It motivated us to pull these pieces together into an issue, and bundle them off to our capable production crew in Noumea. This following story has great relevance to our region, and to our industry, and we ignore it at our peril.

Australian silver pearl prices have begun to show a softening trend over the last nine months or so, due somewhat in part to the events in the US, but also because of the looming threat of overproduction from Indonesia, where a number of large farm projects are apparently scheduled to come on line over the next few years. Silver South Sea pearl (SSP) prices were dropping, not because of current oversupply, but because of uncertainty about the future. People were wringing their hands, and pointing their fingers, but no one was doing anything of substance.

Then, in a bold, stunning stroke, a very large Australian SSP farming company stated that they would guarantee a specified reserve price for all pearls from Indonesian farms for the next two years. Almost instantly, the price for Australian SSPs firmed, turned around, and started to climb back towards its former levels.

There are lots of reasons why this could never happen in the Pacific Islands black pearl industry. But I thought it worthwhile to issue a POIB, with this as the best bit of news that we had. Perhaps, with time, something like this may come to pass.

Until then, all we can try to do is to grow better pearls. You could probably go broke very quickly if you just wanted to keep on growing more pearls. This industry is awash in average pearls. We need to distinguish ourselves, and our products. The mantra heard throughout the market is ‘Quality… quality is always in demand…quality is always appreciated.’ The world doesn’t want more pearls…it wants more beautiful pearls.

Neil Anthony Sims


Industry notes and reports

  • Layoffs in French Polynesia pearl industry caused by overproduction, industry leaders say
  • Tahiti industry status
  • Penrhyn oyster killer not a disease, say scientists
  • Disease outbreak costs Manihiki pearl farms millions
  • Cook Islands asked to ban Tahitian black pearl imports
  • Cook Islands to train local pearl technicians
  • Promising advances for Marshall Islands pearl industry
  • Black pearl seeding secrets being shared in Marshall Islands
  • Sowing the seeds of knowledge
  • Developing a pearl oyster industry in Micronesia
  • PATS demonstrates successful pearl oyster hatchery technology
  • CTSA requests funds to support hatcheries in RMI
  • Growth in West Australian black pearl industry
  • WA black pearl industry

Research notes and reports

  • Pearl research laboratory being built in Tahiti
  • Pearl oysters in Busuanga, Palawan
  • Pearl culture in Hainan, China

News and views

  • Tahiti pearl producers snubbed by internationl buyers
  • Hong Kong pearl auctions: Blacks, whites and plenty of grey
  • Perles de Tahiti's new ad campaign: Latest effort to stabilise black pearl market
  • The current status of Chines freshwater cultured pearls
  • Excerpts from Pearl World - the International Pearling Journal

People, products and processes

  • Ian Robert Turner, 16 September 1946 – 3 April 2002
  • PHD student in India seeks correspondents
  • Alabama nuclei producer seeks pearl farmers contacts
  • Black-dyed faceted cultured pearl

Abstracts, reviews and current contents

  • World Aquaculture Society's WAS 2002, Beijing
  • Recent development in selected Pacific and Indian Ocean black pearl projects
  • and more...

Pacific Pearl Seeding Technician Registry

Download the complete publication:

Pearl Oyster #15 (pdf: )

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