How Australia Sustainably Manages the World’s Last Wild Commercial Fishery of Pearl Oysters

Terry Hunter is a cultural tour guide at Cygnet Bay Pearl Farm. Being an extractive and extensive form of farming, pearl oyster aquaculture is one of the most environmentally sustainable industries. Credit: Neena Bhandari/IPS

By Neena Bhandari
SYDNEY/BROOME/CYGNET BAY, Australia, Nov 23 2018 (IPS)

Australia’s remote north-western Kimberley coast, where the Great Sandy Desert meets the sapphire waters of the Indian Ocean, is home to the giant Pinctada maxima or silver-lipped pearl oyster shells that produce the finest and highly-prized Australian South Sea Pearls.

Australia is the only country in the world that uses wild oyster stocks. To ensure its sustainability, the pearling industry operates on a government-regulated quota system that sets a maximum number of wild stock pearl oysters that can be caught each year from the Eighty Mile Beach, south of Broome in the state of Western Australia. These wild pearl oyster beds represent the last wild commercial fishery for Pinctada maxima oysters in the world.

There are currently 15 wild stock pearl oyster licence holders, but the majority of licences are owned by Paspaley subsidiaries. As Paspaley Group of Companies’ Executive Director, Peter Bracher tells IPS, “Our wild pearl oyster quota is hand-collected by our divers. This is an environmentally friendly and sustainable form of commercial fishing that causes no damage to the seabed and produces no wasteful by-catch. Elsewhere in the natural habitat of Pinctada maxima, which includes much of the Indian and Pacific Oceans, the wild oyster populations have been depleted by overfishing.”

In recent years, the Total Allowable Catch (TAC) has been set between 600,000 and 700,000 pearl oysters. The 2016 TAC was 612,510 pearl oysters and the total quota that could be seeded was approximately 907,670 (557,670 wild stock and 350,000 hatchery-produced), according to the Western Australia Department of Primary Industries and Regional Development’s 2016-17 Status Reports of the Fisheries and Aquatic Resources.

Australian pearling companies have been conscious of the need to protect the oysters’ habitat as there is a strong co-relation between Kimberley’s pristine environment and the production of high-quality pearls.

“The nutrient-rich Kimberley waters, in which our pearls are farmed, are our most valuable asset and monitoring their condition forms an integral part of our operations and management. We have opened our infrastructure and expertise to the academic world and established the Kimberley Marine Research Station to encourage independent marine research and to help bridge the indigenous cultural knowledge with scientific knowledge, which we believe will help in our attempt to ensure our production practices are sustainable,” says James Brown, the third-generation owner and managing director of Cygnet Bay Pearls, the first all-Australian owned and operated cultured pearling company.

Being an extractive and extensive form of farming, pearl oyster aquaculture is one of the most environmentally sustainable industries. Oysters are voracious filter feeders drawing their nutrition from micro-organisms like algae from the water column and in so doing effectively clean the water.

Professor Dean Jerry, Deputy Director at James Cook University’s (JCU) Centre for Sustainable Tropical Fisheries and Aquaculture tells IPS, “Pearl farms also act as fish attraction devices (FAD). The oyster lines, buoys and panel nets hung in the ocean provide habitat and structure for larger and small fish. Often this is the only form of structure in the ocean where farms are providing habitat for marine life to live.”

But Pinctada maxima oysters are very sensitive to pollution and environmental changes. “Global warming and increased carbon dioxide levels in the ocean will make it harder for the pearl oysters to quickly and efficiently lay down calcium carbonate for the mother of pearl that makes the nacre for the pearl. This means that oysters will have to spend more energy for growth, leaving less for immune functioning thereby increasing their exposure risks of disease as rises in water temperatures speed up microbial and parasitic lifecycles,” Jerry adds.

Since 2006, Australian companies have battled Oyster Oedema disease and Juvenile Oyster Mortality Syndrome, which impacts oysters before they are seeded with a pearl and may result in 90-95 percent mortality. Scientists haven’t yet been able to find a causative agent for the two diseases, which have almost halved the worth of the industry.

To make the industry more sustainable, Jerry says, “We need to adopt technology to make oyster breeding programs more productive and disease tolerant. Pearl oysters will really benefit from selective breeding, which will help them grow faster and therefore get to a point where they can be seeded at a younger age and ultimately produce the pearl quicker.”

It takes two years for an oyster to grow where it can be seeded and another two years for when the pearl is harvested. During these four years, the oysters have to be regularly cleaned. “It can cost up to AUD1 an oyster each time, which is a huge financial cost to businesses. If we can get to a stage of harvesting the pearl from a younger oyster, say three years, it will not only increase financial sustainability, but also environmentally sustainability,” Jerry adds.

Mother of Pearl at Cygnet Bay. Australia is the only country in the world that uses wild oyster stocks. To ensure its sustainability, the pearling industry operates on a government-regulated quota system that sets a maximum number of wild stock pearl oysters that can be caught each year. Credit: Neena Bhandari/IPS

Hatchery-bred pearl oysters are now a major part of pearl production. Three oysters are required to create one pearl. A nucleus is inserted from one oyster into another healthy oyster with a small piece of mantle tissue selected from a donor oyster. With time, the mantle tissue that produces nacre (the secretion known as mother-of-pearl) grows completely around the nucleus, forming a pearl sac in which the pearl grows.

An oyster can be reseeded up to three times, and, when it reaches the end of its reproductive life, it is harvested for the mother of pearl shell used in jewellery and inlay for furniture, and pearl meat.

Last year, the Australian South Sea pearling industry of Western Australia and the Northern Territory, have been certified sustainable by the Marine Stewardship Council (MSC).

Chief Executive of Pearl Producers Association, Aaron Irving tells IPS, “The MSC Standard is an independent, internationally accredited science-based standard, against which the environmental sustainability management of a wild marine resource fishery is rigorously assessed. MSC ecolabel assists discerning customers in making an ethical choice.”

Australia is the world’s first pearl fishery to be certified against the MSC’s standard for sustainable fishing. MSC Oceania Program Director Anne Gabriel says, “It’s an exciting development and opens the door to engage a whole new world of consumers on the important issue of fisheries sustainability. We are looking forward to seeing the MSC ecolabel on wild pearls in the jewellery and fashion markets of the world, as well as on mother of pearl and pearl meat products. By buying sustainable pearl products, consumers can also play their part in maintaining healthy ocean ecosystems and securing the future of our fish stocks.”

Paspaley, Australia’s leading pearling company, exports over 95 percent of its production to wholesalers and jewellery manufacturers around the world. Bracher tells IPS, “We sell to many of the world’s leading brands for which ethical supply chains are a high priority. Although we cannot communicate directly with their end-customers, our environmental credentials are an important differentiator as a supplier.”

Cygnet Bay Pearls uses tourism as a way of educating consumers about the making of the Australian South Sea Pearl and the environment it thrives on. Brown tells IPS, “Our new business model welcomes general public to the farm. Our Giant Tides tour shows visitors the unique Kimberley marine environment, which is now regarded as having the largest tropical tides by volume of water and also the fastest tidal currents in the world. This is what powers our pearl farm and allows Australians to grow the finest pearls in the world.”

Terry Hunter, a fourth generation Bardi man, is a cultural tour guide on the Cygnet Bay Pearl farm. He tells IPS, “Cygnet Bay has been my playground. My father and grandfather worked here. The Browns have always recognised, acknowledged and respected Indigenous knowledge. When I hold a mother of pearl oyster shell, I feel alive – connected through ceremony and ancestors.”

Traditionally, the indigenous Aboriginal Bardi and Jawi tribes collected the mother of pearl to make a riji, which boys wear as a pubic covering at the time of initiation or formal admission to adulthood. The engravings on the shell symbolise their connection to earth and water. Now, the riji is worn for ceremonial purposes.

Bart Pigram, an indigenous Yawuru man, worked as a pearl shell cleaner and now owns and operates Narlijia Cultural Tours and shares the unique pearling history of Broome with visitors. He tells IPS, “The environment’s health is integral to not only sustaining the pearling industry, but also the local indigenous communities.”

The pearling industry employs about 800 people. The value of the pearl aquaculture sector was about AUD78.4 million for the 2015-16 financial year, according to the Australian Bureau of Agricultural and Resource Economics and Sciences (ABARES) Australian fisheries and aquaculture statistics 2016 report.

  • The first global Sustainable Blue Economy Conference will be held in Nairobi, Kenya from Nov. 26 to 28 and is being co-hosted with Canada and Japan. Over 13,000 participants from around the world are coming together to learn how to build a blue economy.

The Start of an Important Global Conversation on the Blue Economy

Two fisherwomen walk along the seashore in Nemmeli, India. Canada is committed to building a sustainable ocean economy that is inclusive and can prosper for many. Credit: Stella Paul/IPS

By Jonathan Wilkinson
OTTAWA, Nov 23 2018 (IPS)

This November, Canada, along with Kenya and Japan, is proud to host the world’s first global conference focused on the world’s ocean economy: the Sustainable Blue Economy Conference in Nairobi, Kenya.

The Sustainable Blue Economy Conference, designed to follow the G7 meeting, brings together the international community to discuss ocean economic opportunities and ocean sustainability. This is a crucial step in ensuring the benefits of the blue economy and of a healthy ocean today and for future generations. The world needs to focus on preserving and restoring the ocean’s health while seizing the economic opportunities that come from doing so.

Jonathan Wilkinson is Canada’s Minister of Fisheries, Oceans and the Canadian Coast Guard.

The blue economy provides jobs for hundreds of millions of people around the world – and generates trillions of dollars. In Canada alone, 350,000 jobs depend on the ocean and 36 billion dollars of our national GDP is generated by the ocean economy.

It is a critical example that the environment and the economy go hand in hand.

This conference comes at a critical time. Across the world, thousands of tons of fishing gear are lost and discarded in seas and oceans every year, putting marine life in jeopardy and clogging up harbours. Climate change is warming our ocean at faster rates than we had imagined. And the illegal, unreported and unregulated fishing market is scooping up millions of kilograms of fish each and every year.

The Organisation for Economic Co-operation and Development has said “the ocean economy is essential to the future well being and prosperity of humankind. It is a key source of food, energy, health, leisure and transport on which millions of people depend”.

As our global population continues to grow, we increasingly understand that we will need to rely on our oceans to provide for our global needs of food, trade and livelihoods. Canada is committed to building a sustainable ocean economy that can prosper for many.

Canada made the ocean a cornerstone of our G7 Presidency. Ocean science and observation; addressing illegal, unreported and unregulated fishing; achieving marine conservation targets; addressing ocean plastics including “ghost fishing gear”; restoring and rebuilding fish stocks and marine biodiversity; preventing and controlling invasive species; being prepared for marine emergencies; and improving marine safety are key elements of Canada’s ocean agenda.

The Sustainable Blue Economy Conference is the start of an important global conversation. One hundred and fifty countries will be participating. Over 10,000 people are expected to attend. The stakes are high, the time is short.  Global environmental and sustainability challenges needs global solutions. We must work with the United Nations, our G7 partners, our Commonwealth partners, other international organisations, small island developing states, non-governmental and business groups, who want a vibrant blue economy and a healthy ocean.

We look to the Conference to shape the international cooperation and collective actions needed to seize the opportunities and to meet the challenges. Success will show the essential relationship between environmental sustainability and economic growth, and we are committed to success.

As a country that is bordered by three oceans: the Atlantic, the Arctic and the Pacific, and home to the longest coastline in the world – protecting our oceans for future generations and ensuring the sustainability of this marine resource is of critical importance.

To all the Ministers, partners, businesses and delegates at the Conference and beyond, I encourage you to join with us. We need your voice. You have a stake in this. It’s your future. Join us in building a sustainable future that our kids and grand kids can be a proud of. You can make a difference. Follow us in Kenya and beyond.

Culture, Migration and the Rise of Nationalism

By Jan Lundius and Rosemary Vargas-Lundius
STOCKHOLM, Nov 23 2018 (IPS)

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