Coastal Fisheries Programme

Number 14 - December 2000


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

Whither goest Pacific pearl culture?
Nacri-businesses, nucleus estates, margins and market forces.

In the past, much has been made of the broad socio-economic benefits that have accompanied pearl culture developments in the Pacific Islands. We have all admired the French Polynesian and Cook Islands models of myriad small-scale farmers, scattered across strings of atolls. We have pointed to the extended family cooperative basis by which many of these farms operate, and have cited it as further proof that pearl culture is an ideal development for rural areas. We have waxed lyrical in papers and presentations, praising the almost egalitarian apportionment of farming rights in Polynesian lagoons, and the wide and deep secondary spin-offs from this lucrative industry. We have looked at other potential pearl farming areas, and tried to imagine how to emulate this model.

But is this breathless admiration based on any reality? Is it perhaps merely an illusion, based on outdated information, romantic sentiments or egalitarian ideals? Some recent announcements suggest that we might need to re-evaluate our perceptions as to how pearl culture happens, and who benefits most. Bernard Poirine’s comments in the last POIB, on the pattern of development in French Polynesia brought such concerns sharply to our attention. Bernard pointed out that the expansion in pearl production in the Tuamotus over the last ten years was not accompanied by a corresponding increase in levels of employment, because of the dramatic increases in productivity (pearls produced per man-hour). This was primarily because the existing Tahitian farms have become larger, more reliant on mechanisation, and more efficiently managed. Increasing vertical-integration, with independent auctions and direct marketing, also affords greater market clout and better profit margins to bigger farms.

The large farms in French Polynesia will seemingly just keep on expanding, despite some prominent pronouncements of production stabilising at 6 tonnes, then revised to 8 tonnes. New farm projects being set up on previously unfarmed lagoons are mainly concessions (leases) to larger farmers, who have the capital and capabilities to support operations in more remote areas. Larger farmers are also reportedly busy buying up the concessions of smaller farmers. Tisdell and Poirine (in this issue) note that Robert Wan now controls over 50 per cent of the Tahitian industry; Pearl World also recently reported that the largest five pearl producers in French Polynesia are now responsible for over 75 per cent of total output.

We are witnessing the ascendancy of the pearl agribusiness: the nacri-business. Larger farms, with their better economies of scale, and their greater market leverage, are certainly more efficient. But is greater efficiency the optimum end product of the pearl industry? Should governments care about development goals for an industry, or just get out of the way and allow market forces to move at will? Does the history of pearl development offer any suggestions as to what works best? Would it serve us well to compare existing industry management strategies and their impacts?

More than mere rhetoric, this POIB aims to address, if not answer such questions. In this issue, we present extensive excerpts from an article by Drs Bernard Poirine and Clem Tisdell, comparing the patterns of development, management and socio-economic impacts in the French Polynesian and Australian pearl industries. There are more similarities than differences between the two, and there is an interesting inversion under way. While there may be a trend away from small-scale farm growth towards centralisation in French Polynesia, the formerly monolithic monopoly of Western Australian pearl culture is proving fertile ground for grass-roots growth of a different variety.

In this issue, Dan Machin, of Western Australia (WA) Fisheries, provides an overview of last year’s Amwing Pearl Producers Association Industry Workshop in Perth, which highlighted the growing profusion of small-scale black pearl farms along the WA coast. We also have several other articles on the boom in WA blacks gleaned from various sources. These "non-maxima" farmers are all reliant on hatchery-produced stocks, yet the hatcheries and the farms vary widely in scale and style. Some farms borrow, buy or barter spat from other hatcheries, to keep their deckhands busy during the lobster off-season. Other farms have built their own hatcheries, and laid plans for expansion to rival Tahiti. The established Australian maxima pearl industry has let these farms proliferate, despite the continuing tight controls over growth in the maxima farm quotas.

With French Polynesian black pearl production reported at over 11 tonnes last year, there seems to be little sentiment among Australian non-maxima farmers — or any other fledgling farmers elsewhere in the Pacific — for imposing any form of restraint on expansion. With the increasing concentration of production capacity in French Polynesia under fewer larger companies, some limits on growth might have been imaginable. But Pacific pearl farmers are notoriously independent. Even in a lagoon where everyone knows everyone else’s business, you still can’t tell a Polynesian what he can or can’t do with his birthright.

Are limits on growth even realistic? Should a government begin to involve itself in the business of establishing, managing and monitoring a pearl industry? Which development and management approaches work best, and which are most broadly beneficial: the vice-grip of the established Australian maxima industry? The profusion of farms in the Polynesian lagoons? P. margaritifera farms necklacing the northern half of Australia, or spreading endlessly across the Pacific and Indian Oceans?

Most would agree that governments should not be in the actual business of pearl farming. Socialism and pearl culture simply don’t mix. Communally-owned and -operated pearl farms have pretty much all come to nought — either sundered by small island politics, left languishing for lack of motivated labour, or stripped of the oysters by folk who favour individual initiative over socialist ideals. Despite the overwhelming evidence, however, there is still a tendency in many isolated atolls, where the sense of community cohesion is high, for governments or development workers to try to suggest this approach. Yet can anyone point to a living, breathing government or community-owned pearl farm? If so, please let us know of it. If not, can we finally drive a wooden stake through the heart of the concept of communal pearl enterprises?

The small-scale, extended family cooperative model of pearl farming has always been the darling of development. It appears to offer a suitable profit-incentive, it is readily applied and reasonably manageable, and it seems to fit in well with the atolls’ socio-cultural milieu. But most ideals do not withstand scrutiny well. Poirine and Tisdell point out in their article that over US$ 5 million of bank loans to small pearl farms in French Polynesia remain unpaid (one wonders what proportion of total loans this represents). The trends towards nacri-business conglomerates in Australian and French Polynesian pearl culture suggest that the margins for small-scale operators will only further diminish. In the face of increasing production, some softening of prices, and trends towards vertical integration the small-scale farm suffers serious disadvantages. Smaller-scale farmers can hardly establish their own retail outlets, or run their own auctions, but a plethora of Polynesians, with pockets full of pearls, can lead to further market instability.

In French Polynesia, cooperatives of small-scale farmers have played a crucial role in the broader development and cooperative marketing. To our small understanding, the Japanese pearl culture industry was similarly based on small-scale family-owned farms supported by larger cooperatively-run hatcheries and cooperative or tightly centralised marketing arrangements. Looking beyond the debilitating pollution and disease problems the Japanese industry has suffered of late, this economic model appears to have operated very successfully. Our curiosity is piqued, and we would be pleased to hear more from any of our readers who may be able to offer a comparable analysis of how the Japanese pearl culture industry worked — or how well it worked.

In the Marshall Islands, an attempt is being made at applying an innovative model for pearl culture development, and at evaluating its success — or otherwise. Black Pearls of Micronesia (partly owned by BPI — your Editor), is attempting to apply the old nucleus estate model, formerly used in plantation agriculture and more recently in shrimp production, to expand pearl farming beyond the one large, nucleus farm. The nucleus farm provides those services and support which best befit a large, capitalised operation: the hatchery, training and extension, bulk purchase of materials and supplies, provision of seeding technician services and greater marketing clout. The smaller satellite farms are independently operated, and provide those attributes best befitting locally-owned operations: lagoon and land access, boats, labour, local knowledge. We’ll let you know how it goes.

In the past, the availability of seeding technicians has provided some limit to growth of the industry — both in volume and geographically. An article in this issue by our compadres from ITESM Perlas de Guayamas, however, suggests that — at least for the Pteria sterna of Mexico — pearl technician training may be a lot easier than conventional wisdom holds. Virtually untrained technicians with fewer than 7,000 oysters under their belt were achieving 60—70 per cent retention in the best seeding months. This paper is one of the first serious scientific attempts to open the veil that has shrouded the process of seeding and technician training, and Snrs Nava, et alia, are to be heartily commended for their efforts.

(ASIDE: Just in case you don’t want to learn to seed your own oysters, we continue to develop the SPC’S Pacific Pearl Seeding Technician Registry. A number of experienced technicians are already registered, and we hope to continue to build on this start. If you are a seeding technician, and would like to be registered, please fill out the form at the end of this Bulletin. If you are a farmer in need of a technician, please send your request for information to me here in Hawaii, or to the SPC Fisheries Information Section in Noumea.)

Also germane to these questions of industry growth and management is the issue of how one physically tracks number and area of farms and oyster abundance. Ben Ponia and Co, in the Cook Islands, have made a useful start with a census and mapping survey of Manihiki farms, using databases linked to a GIS program. They share their methods and their findings with us in an article also in this issue. SMA (formerly EVAAM) in French Polynesia also have a sophisticated GIS mapping and monitoring model, but there has been little public dissemination of their methods. Such computerised census and mapping systems at least let the farmers — and the industry — know where they are growing.

We would like to see or hear of more efforts in these directions — towards assessing the effects of what we do, describing the path of how we do it on a macro-level, and attempting to monitor and manage industry growth. We want to think a bit beyond simply what we do in the water, the wharf, the hatchery and the auction-house. It’s a sign of a maturing industry, and it’s part of the responsibility that we bear as pioneers.

Aloha to all

Neil Anthony Sims


Research Notes and Reports

Manihiki Atoll black pearl farm census and mapping survey
by B. Ponia et al.

Amwing Pearl Producers Association Industry Workshop, Perth, 1999
by D. Machin

Evaluation of success in the seeding of round nuclei in Pteria sterna (Gould 1851), a new species in pearl culture
by M. Nava et al.

Pearl oyster training course at James Cook University
by P. Southgate

A review of mass mortalities in pearl oysters
by T. Tun

News and Views

Socio-economics of pearl culture: Industry changes and comparisons focussing on Australia and French Polynesia
by C.A. Tisdell and B. Poirine

Black pearl industry continues to expand Abrolhos black magic

Pearler pins hopes on black beauties

Austasia Aquaculture status report: Australian pearl production

Weather the storm: pearls will survive

Powerful family pearling network: The central figure of a new distribution network has pearling in his veins

Pearls add luster to risky abalone venture Tahitian pearls constitute 28.8% of world market

The coconut pearl

Sharing pearls of wisdom

Black cultured pearls from Baja California, Mexico

Nucleation of Chinese freshwater cultured pearls

People Products and Processes

New product for treatment of boring sponges

Abstracts, Reviews and Current Contents

Pacific Pearl Seeding Technician Registry

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Pearl Oyster #14 (pdf: )

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