Objects of desire and symbols of luxury, pearls have been prized since ancient times. However, there’s more to these watery gems than adorning those fortunate enough to own them. Pearl farming can help to save the world.
This sustainable practice is already making a difference in Tahiti and other Pacific regions, as well as in Asia. The gains made in those places may be relatively small, but they’re promising. They also have implications for countries and communities far beyond those where the pearl farms are located.
Below are four ways in which the culturing of these gems is an ecological game changer.
A Brief History Of Pearl Farming
Pearl farming exists because of the efforts of Kokichi Mikimoto, Tokichi Nishikawa and Tatsuhei Mise. All three of these Japanese men experimented with pearl cultivation in the early 1900s, by which time wild pearl oyster and mussel populations had been decimated by overfishing.
After almost 10 years of experimentation, Mikimoto successfully nucleated Akoya pearl oysters to produce the sought-after gems. Not long after Mikimoto’s triumph, Nishikawa and Mise also saw success. While patenting his nucleation procedure, Nishikawa spotted Mise’s patent for a grafting needle in an office. He made contact with Mise, and together they created the Mise-Nishikawa method. Mikimoto altered the method to produce perfectly round pearls, patented his invention, and then created the Mikimoto Pearl Company which went on to popularize farmed pearls around the world.
As the practice spread, wild populations of oysters and mussels were able to start recovering from centuries of exploitation. Unknown to any of those early pioneers, their inventions offer hope more than a century later, as the planet faces mounting ecological challenges.
Rising To Meet Modern Challenges
Climate change is not the only challenge that threatens earth. The destruction of important coastal and marine ecosystems such as coral reefs are a major issue, as are overfishing and the pollution of rivers. Unregulated development in coastal areas also wreaks havoc on the environment.
These and other issues could have far-reaching consequences for human life. People are faced with challenges such as producing enough food to feed a growing population, and of restoring and rejuvenating damaged ecosystems. Pearl farming can play an important role in combating these problems.
- Improving Marine Biodiversity
One way in which pearl farming is saving the world is through an increase in marine conservation efforts and an improvement in biodiversity. Pearl oyster farming is successful only when sound environmental management is in place, and that cannot be separated from conservation.
Farmers and communities with a vested interested in the success of such projects strive to keep the environment in a pristine condition so that the oysters can thrive. Among the measures implemented in some pearl farms are the maintenance of coral reefs and the banning or restriction of fishing in the area. This has the added benefit of attracting various fish and other marine life, which creates a new ecosystem.
Small-scale pearl farming has made a great difference to the health of ecosystems in which it’s practiced soundly, and the difference has been noticed by various governments. In the Federated States of Micronesia, the government has even allowed farming within some marine protected areas. In Tahiti, the government has taken measures to limit the cultivable area per atoll in order not to overpopulate lagoons that could be detrimental to farming. The Tahitian government is now pushing for recycling of all nylon and plastic-based farming materials as well as finding substitutes to avoid microplastic pollution.
- Improving Water Quality
Pearl farming has been associated with an improvement in water quality, and that’s not only because of conservation and environmental management efforts. The water filtering capabilities of pearl oysters, which feed via the process, is nothing less than incredible.
One of the oysters – the Pinctada margaritifera - used in the culturing of pearls in French Polynesia, is able to filter between 11.5 and 25.9 liters of water per gram of tissue (dry weight) per hour. In doing so, they can help remove pollutants such as heavy metals from the water.
- Sustainable Source of Gems And Food
Of all the world’s gems, pearls are the only ones that can be produced sustainably. All others, from diamonds to tanzanite, are mined, which is not sustainable.
Pearls are farmed by allowing oyster spawns to grow for 12 to 18 months, before submerging the juveniles at the bottom of coral pinnacles. When they reach the correct size, the young oysters are transferred to lantern nets or mesh crates to protect them from predators. As they grow larger, each is placed in its own pocket in underwater baskets. They are hauled to the surface for cleaning every two months.
When the oysters are large enough, a mother of pearl bead coated in antibiotic and a piece of mantel from another oyster are placed inside. Thereafter, they are returned to the ocean. 18 months later, the pearls are extracted.
The beauty of pearl farming is that one oyster is able to produce two pearls. After the first pearl is harvested, the oyster has developed a larger pearl pocket that can be nucleated again with a larger nucleus and another 16 months immersion time. This is how larger famous Tahitian pearls called ''overgraft'' are obtained.
Oysters can also be used for food after the gems have been extracted. A good source of protein, the meat is consumed by communities who are involved in the farming process, as well as by tourists who visit the tropical locations of farms. In the case of freshwater pearl farming, the mussels used can be grown with various types of fish, carp among them. Farmers sell the fish as a source of additional income and as a means of decreasing the need for commercial fishing.
- Industry Diversification and Job Creation
Environmental benefits are not the only ways pearl farming is saving the world. The cultivation of oysters is not limited to pearls and food. By-products of these fascinating gems are used in various ways in other industries.
Whole shells are used to make ornaments, jewelry, and furniture. And, as the shells are mostly calcium carbonate, they can be ground up, purified, and used as a calcium source in nutritional supplements. They are also added to bone replacement therapy and osteoporosis treatments, and many high-end skincare brands incorporate them as one of their key ingredients.
These are only some of the benefits that pearl farming has for the earth and the people that inhabit it. There are others, and more pros are being explored by scientists. When next you adorn yourself with your pearls, think about how their formation contributed to the health of the planet.
Author: Melony Forcier is a 20-year-old journalist from Boston, MA. Writing is her first love but she also has a great affinity for anything chocolate, pugs, cheese boards, and Harry Styles.
Editor, Truly Experiences