Archive for the 'Environmental Issues' Category
Before I start I want to apologize for the long wait… but we have finally finished operating our tens of thousands of “Rainbow Lipped oysters”, and hopefully this means that in a couple more years we will have thousands of beautiful Cortez pearls available for all our customers and friends. It was a both a long (it begun in November 2012) and very cold (temperatures of 6/42 degrees Celsius/Fahrenheit inside the “pearl lab” and of 12/53 degrees Celsius/Fahrenheit in the sea) seeding season, but apparently the operations went well and now it’s just a matter of waiting and of taking good care of our precious little oysters.
Do we have news? Yes we do! By now you know all about our presence in the Christmas edition of the “Bazaar Gilberto 2012” held in Mexico City, of the television program crew that visited last December, but let me tell you about the many other visitors we had: this last February we went up to the Tucson Gem Show, but many Jewelers/Designers also came down from that city to visit our farm, we also had the pleasure of being visited by gemologists from the Gübelin Gemological Lab: Stefanos Karampelas (of Greece) and Pierre Hardy (of France) who are on a quest to find the mysterious origin of the color of our pearls (with a very interesting theory), we also had the visit of Julie Nash, researcher at the University of Vermont and collaborator in the "sustainable pearls" project which has been supported by the "Tiffany Co. Foundation". And in addition to these distinguished visitors we also had the visit of several Mexican and Puerto Rican baseball fans who were at the world famous "Caribbean series 2013" which was held in Hermosillo, Sonora, and hundreds of Canadian and American visitors as well, so in all it was another busy but fruitful winter.
Starting next week I wish to continue with the Fluorescence thread I started on this Blog last year, since I am sure that the subject will be of interest to many of you (because it is) and you will learn new techniques to distinguish between the real and fake (faux) pearls, as well as between different types of cultured and natural pearls.
Also this year we will have an article about our newest designer: Tania Maria of Mexico City, a young woman with great sensitivity and artistic abilities; she made some exclusive jewelry design lines for our Cortez Pearls & Mabe. Unfortunately – and simultaneously fortunately- we cannot share many of her designs due to their enormous success at the 2012 edition of Bazaar Gilberto: out of 10 designs we had we only kept one.
Thank you for your patience and I hope that this year 2013 will provide us all with a a special experience for our senses, but especially in their appreciation of the beauty and uniqueness of the incredible pearls we produce here in Guaymas, Sonora, Mexico.
Shavua Tov! Happy beginning of week for everyone.
For us here in the Sonoran Desert it is a time in between seasons that most people know as “Fall” or “Autumn” but that for us desert-dwellers just means “Summer is Over”. Most people in the area just consider we have two yearly seasons: Summer and Not-Summer. Spring and Fall just last about two very pleasant weeks each, so I do have to agree with local wisdom on this one. Also gone are hurricanes, and I do want to take the time to express my heartfelt condolences to the people that have been affected by hurricane “Sandy” throughout its destructive path in the Gulf of Mexico and into the Eastern coast of the United States of America.
And now that Summer is over we start to experience a couple of environmental changes that make the Sea of Cortez such a unique ecosystem, and that for those that have not experienced this may come as a surprise: the Gulf of California is a Sub-Tropical sea. And this basically means our waters are placidly warm during summer (local high temperature in Bacochibampo bay is 32 Celsius/89 Fahrenheit) and somewhat cold during winter (local lows are 12 C/53 F), and thus our environment changes dramatically from Summer to Winter, the Gulf becomes a different entity because:
1) Summer months: water temperature rise and water becomes clearer, with a dramatic drop in turbidity, this is due to a lack of strong winds. Winds are also responsible for turbidity and for the mixing of bottom nutrients (upwelling), which in turns causes the great algal blooms that enhance this turbidity. This is a great time to SCUBA dive or snorkel in the area, since you don’t have to use a wetsuit and you can spend quality time in the water.
2) Winter months: the strong Northwestern winds begin in November, causing massive upwelling and algae blooms, the summer thermocline breaks and releases deep, colder water. Visibility decreases to the point where you cannot see your hand if you extend it away from your face. Adding to this is the lowered temperatures that make it hard to stay inside the water for periods over 20 minutes, unless you use a wetsuit. Red tides are also common at this time of the year.
And in the process of preparing for this dramatic environmental change we have just received two full sets of SCUBA diving gear that will allow us to continue working underwater during these months. Both of these have been secured with the help and support of the Sustainable Pearl fund, and will be used for our normal farming operations and in order to continue our environmental studies in Bacochibampo bay, helping us to monitor the local pearl oyster and sea-cucumber populations.
And this is important because most local fishermen are less capable of fishing during winter and we can actually see a more natural behavior in the population dynamics. During summer we may have a fishermen visiting and destroying an entire population, finishing up months of work.
I do have to mention that –at present time- it is impossible for us to prove that the work or research we do as part of our commercial operation is actually causing a measurable positive effect on a grand scale, we believe the efforts are indeed having a positive balance –based upon our experience- on a local scale: the local populations of Black lip oysters and Sea Cucumbers are dramatically higher than those of previous years, but this information has already been covered in this Blog so I won’t give you this information yet again.
What we are gaining is a better understanding on population dynamics: why are some years better for reproduction? why did we have a large die-off? did something eat the oysters or was it the environment? Many of these questions can sometimes find an answer when a photo or video (taken with the HD Pro Camera purchased for this purpose) shows you a large 20 arm “Sun-Starfish” on top of a cluster of pearl oysters, or when a fisherman is seen capturing some sea-cucumbers.
Without the diving gear and the camera we would never have the answers, which in turn lead to more questions that require answering. In all, this is a race against Time itself: since Humans have been given a limited time to live and we have a such a small time-frame in which we can actually do something to learn from Nature, specially in an Environment we were never intended to live in.
Hopefully, and with the continued support of the University of Vermont & the Sustainable Pearls project, we will be able to gather more information and help future generations in the quest for sustainability.
The project we initially proposed to evaluate our pearl farm’s sustainability had the following goals:
- The evaluation of the pearl farm’s environmental effect on the local populations of native pearl oysters (and other species) and recovered oyster beds as niche-ecosystem.
- Local fishermen will support the pearl farm as nursery (refuge) area of commercial fish species. This will aid in improving long-term viability of artisanal fishing livelihoods in the region.
- A communication campaign about the success of the project, in conservation and socioeconomic terms.
- The lessons learned from the ecological evaluation and monitoring, sustainable practices, pearl-oyster technology and any associated activity of the pearl farm will be provided for the development of criteria and standards to evaluate pearl farms. This will feed into a feasibility study for the certification of pearl farms.
- The pearl farm -and its perimeter- is under way to be legally considered a wild-life refuge zone where fishing is not allowed, only pearl culture would be allowed.
Unfortunately, we have been unable to secure the funds to carry this out this research that has several benefits to our local environment and to the fishing communities too. Oh well! It’s all about politics in the end and we are not –and will never become- politicians and this –of course- reflects on our inability to secure support. I guess we will just continue to do things our way for the years ahead…which is not a problem but things just move at such a slow rate.
My next entry will be about the “Bazar Gilberto” event we had in Mexico City, and the new jewelry styles that will be available from the “Sea of Cortez Pearl” jewelry store. See you soon!
It has taken some time to sort out a couple of things out all the things that constantly happen around us: pearl harvests, VIP visitors, giant natural pearls & broken hard-drives. But there are those little “pet projects” that you can never dedicate enough time but that are what add zest to your life, and one of these little projects is the “Sustainable Farming Project” that we began some 20 years ago.
Let me tell you a bit about this “idea” we had back then: we wanted to have a “pearl farm” but we would also grow many commercial varieties of invertebrates, mainly to promote their growth and help their populations thrive. That was the original dream in 1994, and now in 2012 we have been able to continue with these efforts, thanks to to combined help from local environmental NGO COBI and the “Sustainable Pearls” project that has been funded by Tiffany & Co. Foundation and the University of Vermont.
But, before I start by describing the environmental situation in the area around our pearl farm in the mid 1990’s and the stark contrast we have today, allow me to first give proper thanks to the people that have helped us recently in this project:
- Dr. Jorge Torre of COBI: who has sent his team of specialized divers to conduct a full fledged environmental study of the impact of our pearl farm in Bacochibampo Bay. A survey of several areas of the bay has been done, and the data is presently under analysis.
- Drs. Saleem Ali & Laurent Cartier: for their invaluable help in promoting our “pet project” as part of the “Sustainable Pearls” project and granting us the needed resources to help us share our work with the world: the Scuba diving gear and the special diving camera that we are now using to take photos and videos of pearl beds, the local marine life and our farming activities.
- Drs. Miguel Ángel Cisneros, Jaqueline García and Marco Linné for additional support regarding analysis and policies.
To all of you: my sincerest appreciation for the help you have granted to continue this labor of love.
Of the very first things we did in the 1991-1993 research phase was to conduct a survey of the populations of native species of bivalves (the main emphasis on pearl oysters of course). What we saw was a sad reality: most commercial species of shellfish had been severely depleted, mainly due to overfishing: pen shells, scallops & clams, all suffered a similar fate. Our results for this early period showed a small population of pearl oysters in Bacochibampo Bay:
- Some 88 Black-Lips (Pinctada mazatlanica), mostly large individuals (10-18 cm), mostly isolated and some in small groups (2-5), mainly found in the small islands and deep, isolated reefs.
- Very few Rainbow Lips (Pteria sterna), some 54 specimens, mostly small (4-8 cm), usually found in small groups on fan corals found in deeper waters.
At the same time we were also conducting “spat collecting” trials (in case you don’t know about this subject, you can read about the process here), in order to find out the correct season for the different species of bivalves, and back in 1991/1992 –not knowing any better- we believed we had good results:
- Black-Lip Average Spat per Collector: only 2 spats per collector.
- Rainbow-Lips Average Spat per Collector: 6 spats per collector.
But, as the amount of oysters growing in our protected cages increased, so did their fertilization rates, something that researcher Neil Anthony Sims clearly stated as a benefit of pearl farming:
“The pearl farms themselves then become agents of repopulation. Where once the oysters were isolated on the reefs, perhaps hundreds of meters from their nearest neighbor, a farm holds large numbers of mature, well-tended oysters in close proximity. This increases reproductive efficiency by better synchronization of spawning epidemics, and maximizing the fertilization rates of eggs, resulting ultimately in more recruitment.” (Excerpt taken from: SPC Pearl Oyster Information Bulletin #10, 1997, “Setting the Record Straight”)
As the amount of native pearl oysters increased in our pilot-culture farm, the amount of available spat started increasing, sometimes quite dramatically:
- Black-Lip Average Spat per Collector in 1997: 35 spats (an increase of 1,750%)
- Rainbow-Lips Average Spat per Collector in 1994: 220 spats (an increase of 3,666%)
Of course, there are many other factors involved in these figures, but it does give you an idea in the validity of Neil Sims opinion on pearl farming (and ours as well, since we found out about this as well, and we presented the information in the “Pearls ‘94” convention in Honolulu, Hawaii, under the name of “Perpsectives and opportunities for pearl oyster culture development on the coast of Sonora, Gulf of California, Mexico”).
This year we were able of catching an average of 10,000 Rainbow-Lip spats per collector, which is an increase of 4,545% over the 1994 figure. Ultimately: what does all of this mean for us? It means it is easier for us to gather the necessary spat for the needs of our farm (80,000 spats yearly), but it also means there is a special gift to the local environment.
Some people may just say: “Wow! All that larva in the water…it will simply die!”, because studies have found that out of every 1 million fertilized eggs only 1 to 10 (not thousands, nor hundreds: it is just one digit here) will actually survive to adulthood. And I do have to agree with them, but the effect has been blown out of proportion so far because we are clearly seeing a recovery of the local pearl beds.
The Environmental Benefits
Altough at present we have not been able to review COBI’s population survey data yet, we have some information available to talk about the positive effect of our pearl farm in the area:
1) The Black Lip Pearl Oyster population within the farm’s sphere of influence has increased: when in the early 1990’s we would find few, isolated, large (old) black-lips, now we find thousands (my estimates are in the vicinity of 5 thousand) of these animals living in tight clusters (from 3 to 20 specimens) on rocks and hard corals, and also on the sandy bottom. The fantastic thing is that we don’t really grow this species commercially, but we have mantained a small stock (usually between 100 to 300) for years just for their “breeding value”, and we enforce a no-fishing ban within our sphere of influence. The population increase since the early 1990’s to 2012 would be of 100,000%, so I guess this is quite good.
2) The Rainbow Lip Pearl Oyster population has not been analyzed yet, but thanks to information shared by Dr. Jorge Torre of COBI and Dr. Miguel Angel Cisneros of CRIP-Guaymas (local Fisheries office), we have been able to glimpse the magnitude of change possible due to our efforts: a large Pteria sterna pearl bed was found a small distance from our location, containing millions of individuals. We cannot share more information since I have not been granted the right (for very good reasons), but the bed is said to measure some 40 miles in lenght…something that has not been seen in the Sea of Cortez since hundreds of years ago, when the Spaniard explorers described similar beds.
Now, I do have to state that we do not have any clear evidence that our farm is responsible for this giant pearl bed, because the only way to do so would be to place genetic tracers on our farm’s oysters and then see where their offspring end up, but there has never been any funding for such a study. Perhaps now we will be able to finally find some support for this project and hopefully claim ourselves as guilty of this shameful effort. By the way: hundreds of fishermen and their families are reaping the benefits of fishing this bed for its meat and pearls.
3) Local Fishes & Invertebrates: Yes, this kind of brings us back to the entry about the Sea Cucumbers I published some months ago, but its effects are even more profound to the local economy, since the pearl farm is basically one big reef: the cages are colonized by many species of algae and then attract all sorts of little invertebrates (worms & crustaceans) that in turn attract many species of fishes, and their offspring (the little frylings) can thrive in the farm and even seek protection within our cages until they grow larger.
And of course: we don’t fish these out and they are free to go whenever they please, thus our farm is a great fish breeding station for our community, a value that we cannot begin to evaluate (perhaps in the future, if funding becomes available). Also consider: we only use 1% of Bacochibampo bay’s surface area, yet you see dozens of fishermen always trying to fish within our area…something that is both infuriating and saddening, because we may loose all of our protected stocks (as it happened last year when a sea cucumber poacher took thousands of these in a day). Yet, we have started again and I’m happy to say our new batch of warty looking friends is doing quite well!
You can watch a 5 minute video I recently took of the fish life in our farm, and if you have fished here in the Gulf of California you will notice some valuable species such as the Yellow Snapper (Lutjanus argentiventris) and the Triggerfish (Balistes polylepis), which are very much in demand by both sports fishers and local fishermen. The farm is teeming with Life!
Fair Trade Pearls
Back in the year 2000, when we were finally growing our cultured pearls commercially, we had the dream of becoming a “major player” in the pearl industry but we also wanted to be different from many of the other players in the industry, specially regarding the environmental effect of the farm, the quality of our pearls and the way we would be involved with our community. In those days we had not yet heard about the Fair Trade Movement, nor of the Fair Trade Gems initiative, but when Enrique and Manuel met with Eric Braunwert back in 2003 we just knew we were all in this idea toghether. It just felt natural for us to support –and be supported- by this cause.
In the end, it is often said, that we all just “reap what we sow”…but since we do not reap the results of this pet project (since we don’t fish for our benefit, we don’t harvest natural pearls for ourselves and we don’t obtain public nor private subsidies or grants)…then I guess this is all about our Tikkum Olam: the search for a better world.
I hope we will be able to continue with our efforts and that more people will come to our aid as well, we are too few and the task seems enormous. But with your help and faith, it will be possible. Thank you all for your support.
“A Tiger loose on the Farm”
And on this new post we continue with the description of Jesus “El Tigre” Mendoza’s activities at our Pearl Farm:
All my life I have lived in Guaymas, yet I did not know that there was a place where animals were cultivated for the production of pearls. Of course I knew about edible oyster and shrimp farms, but I never imagined that we had a pearl farm, right here in Guaymas! but we had all heard the faint rumors. It was not until November 2010, when –while attending ITSON- I had a course named “Natural and Cultural Attractions”, the course’s professor being one of the Pearl Farm’s owners. Our new teacher -Douglas McLaurin Moreno- took the whole group for a field trip to this “farm” and was here that I learned how to they raised the “pearl oysters” for the production of cultured pearls.
It was a great experience to learn about pearl farming. And then, after almost two years of having visited the site, I finally had the opportunity to “work” here doing my “professional stays” at the pearl farm; in January of this year I became a key part of several research projects for the company, including one that aims to monitor the many marine species that grow alongside the oysters in the pearl culturing cages.
From that moment I began to understand the great importance of having a pearl farm in Guaymas, and later I began to think that this benefit is not solely for Guaymas, but for the entire Sea of Cortez. When we take the culture cages from out of the sea, to evaluate the growth of the “Rainbow Lip Oysters” (also known as Pteria sterna) there is always a great host of marine fauna alongside the farm-raised mollusks; it was impressive to see that in a such a small space –that of the cage- you can find such a great variety of animal species, in what appears to be complete harmony.
So I was tasked to keep track of all these species, keeping track of all vertebrate (fish) and invertebrate fauna: the different species found as well as their number, but being specially on the lookout for these 3 main species: the “Panamic Black Lip Pearl Oyster” (Pinctada mazatlanica), the “Pen Shells” (Atrina maura, Pinna rugosa) and the “Sea cucumbers” (holothurians). I still monitored dozens of other species such as: crustaceans (Spiny Lobsters, pistol shrimps, banded ghost shrimps -Lysmata californica- and swimming crabs), several fishes (Angel fishes, Soap-fishes, Groupers, Snappers, Catfishes, Eels & Blennies) bivalves (mussels, scallops, Blood Cockles, Chocolate clams) and many others.
It was very interesting to notice how many of these species grow, some even attaining large dimensions -as in the case of the Sea Cucumbers- of up to 20 centimeters (7.8 inches) in length. Holothurians are animals commonly known as “sea cucumbers”, due to their elongated bodies with a shape similar to that of that vegetable. They are related to starfish and sea urchins (Echinoderms).
Holothurians, have a very important biological function in coastal areas: they clean the seabed of those accumulated organic wastes. They belong to a group of animals referred to as bottom-feeders: they just basically eat the organic material found within the sediment (sand), and what they excrete is just clean sand, without any organic matter. And here why these animals have such a great biological importance: if a bay has an adequate amount of sea cucumbers, its sand will remain cleaner and we will be able to enjoy white sand, not the “dark and sticky” sand we sometimes find in some areas. This is what I was told here at the farm: that these animals are providing us all of with this free environmental service.
Just in the month of January, this pearl farm was able of “rescuing” (meaning: they were returned to their natural environment) some 2,262 sea cucumbers, which averaged 11 cm (4.3 inches) in length; if these creatures had been returned to their environment while still young they would have had become food for predators since their defense mechanism is not yet sufficiently developed (when a sea cucumber is attacked, it can expel its viscera (guts) which are sticky and mildly-toxic, but the sea cucumber does not die because it can regenerate its guts in a few days and just like that), but by growing them in a farm they will be able to escape their natural predators.
Although in Mexico Sea Cucumbers are not considered valuable (because people here do not eat them nor can they be used for souvenirs), in many Asian countries (such as China, Japan and Korea) they are used in their cuisine and they are also considered to be an aphrodisiac. Such is their demand in Asia that they have been fished out of our waters, these animals no longer doing their environmental service for us.
So this is where I began to understand the other great benefit of this pearl farm: not only are its benefits coming directly from the jobs that come with the production of the pearls, but the farm is also helping towards the reproduction and growth of other wildlife fauna, since the aquaculture cages offer protection and security to many species -providing refuge from predators- until they can return to the sea to continue their natural processes. The farm offers a free environmental service as well.
Therefore, this company does not just favouring the recovery of some animal species -such as with sea cucumbers- but it is also benefiting the local fishing industry; from my perspective I believe that the farm protects many species of fish that are commercially caught for human consumption or fish that become food for these and that are later released back into the Bay. This seems to be a true sustainable industry, not only for Guaymas but for the entire Gulf of California: an industry that does not lead to the extermination of marine life and where it will become protected for all future generations.
To finalize this article: staying in a pearl farm is for nature lovers, because you are next to the sea in a place where can protect marine species, ensuring a future for all. And this is something that I have learned while working at the “Sea of Cortez Pearl” farm in Guaymas.
And now we have come to the end of Jesus’ personal contribution to our Blog. I thank him for giving us his unique perspective. In future posts we will –once more- continue with the “El Mechudo” saga and more Mabe Pearl production, so keep visiting and do take the time to let me know your thoughts.
After a short absence due to our many obligations at the pearl farm and also at the Gem Show in Tucson, Arizona, we continue to share our experiences in the pearl production. And for us, an important part of our aquaculture process is based on Environmental Sustainability: the production of pearls with full-respect for Bacochibampo Bay’s ecosystems.
An It is because of this reason that -through the years- we have carried out an active process of re-stocking of several native species, whose populations have become endangered because of the fishing activities carried out by the locals. Among these species we can list the following: the “Black-lip pearl oyster”, the “Lion’s Paw Scallop”, the “Pen Shells” and the “Sea Cucumbers”.
However, our efforts have not been effectively transmitted to the general public because we basically have a one-man PR department (me!) and that I do spend most of my time working (as expected!) either in the production of pearl oysters and their pearls OR in the process of selling pearls and pearl jewelry; and the little time left from these occupations does not allow us to carry out an effective social communication effort although we do have our website up-&-running, as well as this blog (in two languages), a Facebook page and a Tweeter account.
But this year we have the fortune of having two young, bright and hardworking students helping us out at the farm. These students of the Guaymas Campus of ITSON (a local Public University) are about to graduate as Bachelor’s in Tourism. Thanks to an academic program of this important local institution, this young pair will help us in two very important areas: Sales and Research.
In the Sales area we have the invaluable assistance of Miss Veronica Machado and in the production area we have the strong support of Jesus Antonio Mendoza. Jesus Antonio -known by his nickname “El Tigre”- is helping in data collection and analyzing the important biological information for several small projects, including the “Sea Cucumbers Project” and the bio-cleaning of pearl-cages.
I have asked Jesus “El Tigre” Mendoza to write a bit about his experiences of working in our pearl farm, as their training focuses mainly on tourism and he has a very different way of viewing our pearl farming activities: this is an entirely “alien concept”. And this is his first contribution to the Blogosphere. I hope you will be able to see things through the eyes of this young man:
From a very young age I have had great admiration and respect for nature, especially for all the natural resources that exist in the region where I live; I have always admired the contrasting combination found between the mountains, the desert and the sea. Despite of living in a place where the climate is extreme and where there is almost no rain, I’m always surprised how plants and animals have adapting to survive in these arid lands, and how our people have learned to survive.
I live in a very popular city located in northwestern Mexico: the famous port of Guaymas, located in the state of Sonora, which is situated on the shores of the Sea of Cortez (aka Gulf of California). This port’s economy is largely dependent on fishing, although in recent years has all fisheries have declined, due to over-exploitation, and thus this activity -in turn- came to be partially replaced by the maquiladora industry, but these do not provide the same quality of life –as fishing did- to our community.
It is until now that I have come to understand the great importance of the Sea of Cortez, not only for Guaymas but for the whole world: this sea has a unique biodiversity of marine species, all which are part of a large marine ecosystem on which we all depend for our survival. Species such as the vaquita marina, and the native species that are found at the pearl farm, such as the sea cucumbers, the many starfishes, the Cortez Angelfish, among others are just a part of a long list of flora and fauna that live in our waters.
The Gulf of California is also breeding place for beauty and rarity, the home of a Gem which is produced by a rarely-known pearl oyster species: the “Rainbow Lip Oyster”, an animal that produces pearls of intense and diverse colors: red, purple, blue, green and rainbow-like. Here at the farm they become high-end jewelry items, used primarily by women that visit this farm.
Soon –and thanks to the help of Veronica & Jesus- we will be finalizing details of our next “El Mechudo” video and we will have additional presentations from Jesus and Veronica.
Well, this isn’t really a “freshly-made” blog entry (I actually had it in the Spanish language version of this Blog since August 9th) but have not had the time to translate and proof it. I know: in these days of “instant translators” (such as Google Translate & Bing Translator) it should really be easy to just pop-in your text, get it out and be done with it…but some of us prefer to do things the “ole fashioned way”: using our brains and typing text. So, here is my review of this year’s “Pearl Ruckus”…
In the previous entry announcing he would travel to Los Angeles, California, to participate in the traditional "Pearl Ruckus" organized by the American Pearl Entreprenaeur Jeremy Shepherd, in order to gather toghether friends of what is probably the most important international pearl forum on the Internet: Pearl-Guide.com
Hollywood: Pearls we bring to you!
So, keeping to our appointed date (from July 22nd to the 24th) we all met in a beautiful mansion near the hill with the “Hollywood” sign … you will have to please forgive me the lack of photos but my camera "died" unexpectedly and the few images I was able of taking were using a borrowed camera (Thank You Sarah!). A total of 18 people came toghether thanks to the true hospitality and generosity of our hosts Jeremy & Hisano; we all had the opportunity to share & learn more about our fascinating gem (the pearl of course) and the changes that are happening within this industry.
On Saturday 23rd we had 3 presentations and a special necklace-making session. Presentations were given by:
Josh Humbert, pearl farmer from Ahe, French Polynesia. Josh is a black-pearl producer that takes pride in his high quality pearls grown in an environmental friendly way. Josh explained his “biological cleaning system” (which he calls “the silent workforce”) based on the use of reef fish, which are used to clean his pearl oysters and avoid labor costs. This is a very interesting system that also allows his farm to avoid pollution increases the local fish populations.
Douglas McLaurin of Guaymas, Mexico, with a discussion of the positive Environmental aspects of the operation of a pearl farm in the Gulf of California. This activity seems to have had a very positive effect on the repopulation of the native pearl oyster species and that will be also be used to enhance the reproductive potential of other native species.
Hisano Takei, a very talented designer, was responsible for a special “designers & jewelry workshop”, among which we could find Caitlin Williams (moderator of the Pearl-Guide.com’s forum) and designers Sarah Cannizzaro (from Kojima Co.), Patricia Saab, Sheri Jurnecka, Cathy Tran, Cinde Newberry, Wendy Weaver, and Marianne Carter…
All these activities are conducted in a relaxed atmosphere that made you feel as if in a group of good old friends instead of a formal, business-like meeting… this was –of course- a matter of pleasure for us all: the pleasure of talking and sharing our passion for all pearls.
By the way, Sarah Cannizzaro also made her own Pearl-Ruckus blog entry, which you may enjoy here!
Pearls and More Pearls
We all had the opportunity to showcase our best pieces: pearls from all corners of the world … Josh had his "Kamoka" black pearls, including a huge 18 mm diameter cultured black pearl, Sarah Cannizaro designed a uniquely-original “pearl tiara” incorporating various types of pearls: kasumi pearls from Japan, Chinese freshwaters and even a Cortez Mabe Pearl (by the way: the tiara had a tremendous success among us), Douglas had a pair of very special pearl necklaces and a group specially “Cherry picked” Cortez Cultured Pearls from the 2011 harvest, Patty had a very long string of Cortez pearls (measuring some 50 cm in lenght!) and she also had a very nice necklace made with "Osmeña Pearls" (made from Nautilus shell) and -of course- Jeremy had the opportunity to show us the reason why he is sometimes considered as the "King of Pearls": not only because he travels the world in search of some of the finest pearls, but because he had 6 kilos of the so-called "Edison pearls" (which I prefer to call “Metallic Pastels”).
A touching moment occured when Jeremy thanked Caitlin for her hard work at the Pearl forum and gave her a beautiful necklace made with natural “Basra” pearls from the Persian Gulf region, complete with certificate of authenticity.
To all who attended and made this the very best "Pearl Ruckus" ever. And, very importantly, I want to Thank our hosts Jeremy Shepherd and Hisano Takei, who made us feel –at least for a couple of days- as authentic "Pearl Kings and Queens”. Next year’s Pearl Ruckus is rumored as if it could take place in the Philippines, with Jacques & Christopher Branellec –of Jewelmer fame- acting as hosts … but this is still an unconfirmed rumor. Where will the Sea of Cortez Pearl go in the near future? We’ll just have to wait & see…
Finally, and totally out of the whole “Pearl Ruckus” theme… I took this picture of a sculpture made from scrap-metal parts (motorcycle parts, gears, automotive engine parts, etc.) made in the image of the famous movie-monster "Predator" as it harpoons another terrifying movie-monster "Alien". We never knew the name of the owner of the Hollywood mansion were the gathering was hosted, but I assume –based on the presence of this "altar"- that somehow he might have been involved with this film series. Maybe.
Obtaining the "Seeds" for your Farm
In order to “fatten” or grow your pearl oysters from a “juvenile” stage, what many refer to as “seed” or "spat" (oysters measuring between 2 and 8 mm), you either buy your litle oysters from specialized bivalve producing lab-facility, or you must establish a "wild spat collection" program. "Lab-raised spat" can be a very good option, but it may have a few disadvantages that are solvable. Let us first consider the advantages and then the disadvantages of Laboratory produced Juveniles:
- You may have your spat at the desired schedule for your operation.
- You can have all the spat you need for your farm.
- Juveniles will have a very similar size (homogeneous) and growth rate.
- The “Lab” may not produce spat for you due to a lack of demand (important if you use native or endemic species).
- The quality of the spat may be very low (=high mortality and or lower growth).
- The spat may have low genetic variability, since they come from a small group of “parents”.
The advantages of obtaining "spat” from wild-collectors are many, but it also has its disadvantages:
- The seed is inexpensive (almost free!)
- The spat has undergone a "natural selection" process, where only the "stronger" (or “luckiest”) survived.
- There is much genetic variability within the group, which makes them less likely to die from some environmental change or a disease.
However, in regard to the disadvantages we have:
- You fully depend on the environment to capture your baby-pearl oysters, and it is becoming increasingly more difficult to predict the exact time for spat-collection (due to environmental changes) and
- It is almost impossible to predict the amount of seed that you are going to obtain and, in addition
- Your Juveniles will have variable sizes (heterogeneous) and you simply
- Do not know the group’s their "genetic make-up": you could end up with “oyster-duds”.
Therefore, it is necessary to carry out, for months or even years, proper tests to find the most suitable areas for spat collection and understand in detail the reproductive behavior of the pearl oysters within the area of cultivation. Still, it’s easy to mess-up and obtain fewer than the desired amount of spat, so a mixed strategy can be more profitable: use both laboratory and wild–caught spat.
At our farm in Guaymas, we have been blessed with good seed collection areas that have allowed us to rely 100% on wild-caught spat since 1994, but we have experienced environmental disruptive phenomena (such as an "El Niño” or a "La Niña” Year) that have caused us major problems in this area. However, seed production laboratories in the region do not sell pearl oyster spat… due to a lack of customers.
So far we have only seen this strategy –the use of spat or “seed”- to start your pearl farm, but in a future post we’ll also discuss the other strategy: gathering large, wild-bred pearl oysters… but even before we compare all these strategies: how do you think these strategies can affect the environment? Surely the answer will surprise you (unless you already know something about this topic)…
What can happen if I use "Lab-Raised Spat"?
If this strategy is used properly, your farm can enjoy an uninterrupted supply of juvenile oysters, without ever having to depend on the environment’s natural supply. But, as with so many other things in which Humans get their hands-in, it can also lead to at a least pair of "unfourtunate" environmental problems. Among these we have "Genetic Pollution" and also the world-wide ocurrences of "massive pearl oyster mortalities". Here’s why:
Setting: Japan, in the early 1960′s when the pearl aquaculture industry began a period of growth that seemed inexhaustible… thousands of pearl farms with their hundreds of rafts and thousands of culture cages, all inside the crowded bays of this island nation. With millions of "Akoya-gai" pearl oysters in culture there simply there were no more “wild-bred” pearl oysters available (most of these had been fished out to supply the pearl aquaculture industry) and there was not enough wild spat for the farmers. Since the Japanese people have been using research to advance their aquaculture technology, they generated enough knowledge to be able to rear laboratory-produced juveniles of all types of mollusks. Under this production system all that is needed is to procure a couple of oysters, an "Adam and Eve" if you will; from this couple you will be able to obtain millions of baby oysters (a female oyster can produce -depending on the species and other conditions- between 100,000 and 1 million eggs in a single "egg discharge") or “spat”.
The problem that may be generated under this system is that all your oysters are descendants of this single pair of oysters (your “studs”), thus they are all siblings, and genetically speaking: these oysters are very similar (but not identical, remember that there is a genetic effect known as "Genetic Recombination" which makes it possible for an increase in genetic differences). This makes them more likely to react similarly to environmental change or disease: if one of them becomes sick… most likely all others will too. This problem can be avoided using a larger number of parent oysters or "studs" and we will gain a much greater genetic variability among our pearl oysters. Unfourtunately, once producers have used this productive system, they will imediately begin with the selection of "strains" or “Breeds” of genetically improved oyster stock, in which the parents are selected solely based on characteristics that are considered as desirable, such as:
- A faster growth rate
- Better Shell-Shape and/or
- Better Shell color (=color of the pearl)
And this is where a vicious cycle can begin, having no end in sight until its consequences become catastrophic, yet very few seem to care about this problem. Originally, pearl oysters are selected with the characteristics of faster growth rate and shell color, and from these you get a first generation (F1) of oysters that may be larger, grow better and produce pearls with a more similar color. Initially, this is something very good for the producer, since he’ll have the ability to introduce just the “right product” for the mass market: most pearls will be very similar and you can produce tens of thousands of identical pieces.
However, if the the farmer re-runs the selection of broodstock (from the F1 or first generation) he will be able to further refine these characteristics: the pearl oysters will grow even faster and will have a better color selection. And so, the process is repeated for several generations… until his organisms (let us say, in their F10) become "genetically depressed" in a process known as inbreeding.
I ask the question again: What does the Environment think of this? How can we affect the Environment? Well, let us gather some information from the Wikipedia on this topic:
Inbreeding is the reproduction from the mating of two genetically related parents, which can increase the chances of offspring being affected by recessive or deleterious traits. This generally leads to a decreased fitness of a population, which is called inbreeding depression. Deleterious alleles causing inbreeding depression can subsequently be removed through culling, which is also known as genetic purging.
Thus, growers should avoid the phenomenon of "genetic depression" through a less stringent selection or by introducing "new blood" -originating from wild oysters- so as to avoid this negative phenomenon.
Negative Environmental Impact from using Lab-raised Spat
Although I would like to say that there is absolutely no negative impact, I must declare just the opposite. There is evidence that the use of lab-raised organisms can have an effect known as "genetic pollution" upon the wild-bred populations. This is something that is believed –by some- to have had affected the Japanese populations of Akoya-gai (Pinctada imbricata) oysters and could have helped cause the already known mass mortalities of pearl oysters. How so? Because of the production of sexually-infertile chromosome-altered oysters know as polyploids. These oysters are supposed to be infertile, thus the energy an oyster devotes to reproduction is instead spent on growth…a great thing for any pearl farmer, but as with all good ideas some are not that good. So, some of these unfertile polyploids began reproducing, their altereded gametes giving rise to some “Franken-Oysters” that settled in Japan’s bays, becoming part of the Akoya-gai’s “gene pool”.
But why do these things happen??? Because we cannot put a leash on Nature, because we just lack the Humility to accept that sometimes we just have a great tendency to wreck things up, and very specially when it comes to the environment.
This aspect is similar to the “Wild Corn vs GMO Corn” controversy: pearl oysters are key species in many ecosystems and they also have cultural-value in many lands, why not just take care of the critters and raise decent cultured pearls and doing it in the best possible way? Well, there is always someone who goes the extra-mile to get an extra penny…seems this is what Life is all about after all.
Our solution to this problem is simple: AVOID using inbred organisms, by always introducing "new blood" (wild-organisms from your locality to prevent any damage) into your selected “breed” and to always avoid using chromosomic-freaks. Mexico –among many others- is a Megadiverse country, and deserves the protection of its remaining natural resources: these belong not only to us, but to our children and all future generations, and as many have stated before: the Environment knows nothing about borders, languages or Human culture, so in essence it belongs to whole of Humanity and for all other Living beings with which we share this beautiful blue planet.
Let us learn from the mistakes of others, and avoid falling into the habit of continuously using “damage control" techiques. In the next post I will discuss the "collection of wild spat". Until next time!
Continuing with the subject of “pearl culture and the environment”, we will now talk about some of the reasons why a farmer will not want to culture his pearls for a longer period of time, and also of how a pearl farm can affect the environment: but remembering that this can be in either a positive or negative way.
Behind every great Pearl there is a Great Pearl Oyster…
By “growing” or raising young pearl oysters (usually known as “spats”)
- By means of the Fishing of Wild Fully-Grown Pearl Oysters (adults)
The Pearl Cultivation Period
Water pollution: oil spills, water runoffs with fertilizers/pesticides, etc.
Environmental disruption: that can be as dramatic as a tropical storm (hurricane) or a tsunami, or even something as subtle changes in ocean currents or extensive climate changes (such as those caused by a “El Niño” or “La Niña” year), which can range from the partial destruction of a farm (see our series of posts on “Pearls and hurricanes”) to massive pearl oyster mortalities, or that prevents their development, the growth of pearls or their lack of beauty.
Accidents: at times – and we do know of this – a commercial fishing boat may simply decide to fish on your farm, and become entangled with your aquaculture gear; this –of course- only happens if the ship’s Captain decides that he does not want to respect a no-fishing zone and does so at night, when there is no visibility. This has happened to us.
The “Right Time”: No more & No less
- Do some species disappear or some (new ones) appear?
- Are there are any changes in the ocean’s floor (smell, color, grain size)?
- Are there any physical and chemical changes (salinity, pH, dissolved oxygen) in seawater?
- Are your oysters healthy?
- By using “spat” or pearl oyster juveniles: this can be done by either collecting juveniles from the environment or through the purchase of “Lab raised spat”, produced in highly specialized production centers;
- Fishing for “Wild Grown (adult) oysters”: these animals are usually obtained by fishermen that will sell the wild-raised pearl oyster to a farmer (at a price that ranges from cents to some $15 US dollars per oyster, pricing depending on multiple conditions) or by pearl-divers that are employed by the farmer. The preferred oyster sizes range between 10 and 16 cm (4-6 inches) in diameter, which will allow you to grow larger pearls.
Just a couple of days ago a friend of mine –he is a retired Canadian farmer- and I were discussing the way the North American “Meat Industry” (beef, poultry, pork, etc.) had become misguided by the constant search of higher volumes of production (which, somehow, equal MONEY), but this was being done at the expense of both the animals and the consumers (all of us). Kurt began by telling me about his experience when dealing with local Animal Sanitation officers, about the indiscriminate use of antibiotics on cattle and the plain lack of “common sense” on the part of those involved in the industry. He told me: “I did not inject my animals with antibiotics, but instead I offered them land on which to forage, clean straw-bedding and care. My animals never developed the infections I was told they would suffer and they fattened better than those under the strain of antibiotics”. He cared for his animals and treated them with respect. Some in the industry seem to have noticed the same thing and have reverted to “the Old way”.
Just a couple of days later we were reading an “old” article written by Shigeru Akamatsu, a person with much influence in the Pearl Industry (being Counselor of the “Japan Pearl Promotion Society”, and he started as a pearl culture researcher under Kokichi Mikimoto’s leadership) and I felt this article tied in perfectly with the talk I had with Kurt, and thus this entry got its start.
The Reasons Behind the Changes
The article “Pearl Culture and the Biological Environment” (published in “Ship & Ocean Newsletter”#8G March 5, 2004) which can be downloaded in PDF format is quite interesting because it finally approaches the decline of the Japanese Pearling Industry in a way that is finally understood: the industry as a whole has to admit its guilt. No longer is guilt being laid upon the “wrath of Nature” in the way of red tides or mysterious diseases. And although Mr. Akamatsu does not mention it this way, I could read the word “greed” on certain paragraphs…but he never mentions this sin, rather handling it in a more political way by using a term like “in the pursuit of economic efficiency”.
Mr. Akamatsu states in this article’s first paragraph:
“Japan dominated the world’s cultured pearl industry for many years, but in recent times that state of affairs is changing rapidly. Though the rapid globalization of the pearl industry can be considered as one of the reasons, the primary cause is the deterioration of pearl farms caused by the occurrence of harmful red tides and the massive mortality of Akoya pearl oysters due to an infectious disease. Such phenomena relate not only to pearl culture, but also to BSE, carp herpes, avian influenza, etc., and may be the price paid for not treating animals as living creatures, in the pursuit of economic efficiency, as well as for incessantly changing the natural environment for the expansion of production.”
When pearl culture began in the early 20th Century, the overall idea was to produce a natural pearl substitute but that would keep the attributes of the pearl: beauty and durability. Initially, pearl culturing periods were long (2-5 years) but many in the industry noticed that pearls with shorter culture periods still looked nice (1-2 years) but then they saw that most people could not tell the difference between “instant pearls” (4-8 months) and those with a longer culture periods, thus shorter pearl-growth periods became more common…and profits increased. Why would profits increase? This is something that every pearl farmer understands, but let me explain it shortly: each pearl oyster in your farm costs you money, every day.
In order to cope with mounting costs (labor, equipment & fuel) pearl farmers can use many strategies, such as:
- Increase stocking density: you grow more oysters in the space you already have.
- Decrease your Work-force: substituting manpower with machinery and equipment.
- Decrease your Pearl Culture Period: you grow your pearls in less time.
Let us talk about the implications of each of these strategies.
Growing more oysters in the same space you had may sound efficient: If you can fit 10 books in a box that once only held 7 books –thanks to a more clever way of arranging your books- then you have done this in a more efficient manner. But it is not necessarily the same with living organisms: animals –even plants- will thrive under adequate conditions, but overstocking/over-crowding will yield unhappy critters…and this brings about stress.
Imagine you live in a 10 x 10 meter room (sounds like a prison-cell, doesn’t it?) and all of your basic needs are fulfilled in this space that has a toilet, lavatory, book-case, table and chairs, bed and TV set. Now imagine you have a new guest, it may become uncomfortable but livable, but now: crowd the cell with 8 more “guests” for a total of 10 people…1 per square meter. Life becomes unbearable for all: can’t eat, can’t use the toilet nor watch TV nor reach for a book, then there’s the lack of food, stress, the smell and finally disease. Not a nice option…would it be nice for an oyster? Our mollusks don’t have brains nor conscience so they will not suffer any psychological damage, but their bodies will indeed react to overcrowding by displaying less growth (become stunted), will be less healthy and will become sick (ultimately they will die) and their pearls will lack beauty.
We can actually tell when an animal did not enjoy a healthy life when we see its shell and pearl: unhealthy oysters will have dull shells, without intense colors (the trade-mark of our “Rainbow-Lipped Oysters”) and their pearls will have dull luster and light colors. But overcrowding oysters is not the only factor that will affect their health: the environment (pollution, climate change, hurricanes) and disease (caused by parasites), but these are not under the control of a farmer. It is up to the farmer to have healthier pearl oysters by means of adequate stocking densities.
Infections are a major headache for producers: infected oysters may quickly infect their sisters & brothers under crowded conditions, and since overcrowding makes oysters weak –due to a combination of lack of food and oxygen- and parasites can easily “jump” from an oyster to many others if the distance is short.
In our case we hold our “Rainbow Lipped Oysters” under more than adequate conditions inside Bacochibampo Bay: we use less than 1% of the bay’s entire area and there are no other mollusk farms in the vicinity (the closest one is an edible oyster farm in Kino Bay, some 180 Km/112 miles away). We are making sure that our fledgling venture will not follow the same course as others, but let us see what has happened in other pearl producing countries:
The Cook Islands: here we’ll cite information about pearl-farming mortalities caused by overstocking (you can read the whole article by downloading the PDF file from the link):
“In Manihiki Lagoon, one potential stressor which may have been related to the onset of mortalities was the high stocking density. Prior to the disease outbreak the number of oysters cultured in Manihiki Lagoon was reportedly at an all-time high. In conclusion, our data suggest that an unprecedented disease outbreak in P. margaritifera [the Black-Lipped Pearl Oyster] in Manihiki lagoon in November 2000 was associated with vibriosis caused by V. harveyi [a species of Vibrio virus] and other opportunistic vibrios.”
Japan: When we began our experimental pearl farm in 1994 we heard about a “mysterious disease” that was killing the Akoya Pearl Oyster and that nothing could be done about this “viral outbreak”. The blame was laid entirely upon an “unknown virus” and you can read some of the thoughts of the time (taken from “NOVA: the Perfect Pearl”) on the following paragraph:
“Experts attribute the initial oyster deaths in 1994 to “red tide,” a bloom of microscopic, toxin-producing animals in the ocean that proved deadly to the oysters. Even after several years of scientific investigation, the specific cause of the disease remains a mystery. The illness first makes itself known when the abductor muscle, which holds the two parts of the oyster shell together, turns a reddish-brown. Ultimately, eight out of ten affected oysters die from the affliction, which so far has only affected akoya oysters. Others feel the oyster farmers themselves might be to blame. “The Japanese have always tended to place too many oysters too close together” wrote Andy Müller in the December 1996/January 1997 issue of Pearl World.”
So, in both instances we’ve seen that over-crowding –both your cages and your bays- leads to severe problems in pearl production. Why do it at all? Many reasons there are, but they are one and the same: the COST of floats, equipment (pearl culture cages), more workers (salaries), of paying for more “sea-rights”, the costs of moving away from densely packed areas into remote areas (devoid of many necessary services), but in the end they are all translated into the cost of producing pearls. If pearls kept a high value you would not need to grow billions of pearls, thus by producing more pearls the industry shot itself in the foot and a vicious cycle began to turn and churn.
Many people believe this is a major solution to a company’s problems, but we believe this is really a big mistake. Companies are nothing if they don’t have people: they are made of people and one of the purposes of any company should be the production of well-paid jobs. Making money is not bad and should be a goal of every company, but it should not be the sole goal: there is a particular pride to producing pearls and the people that help you achieve this… become your trusted allies.
Farm-wise: without workers a pearl farm would just die. Pearl farming is a work intensive operation, involving divers, aquaculture technicians, farm-workers, mechanics, surveillance guards and many other people. Loose one link and the rest will follow. And pearl farmers usually work under very specific time constraints such as: the seeding season, the spat collecting season, harvest season, etc. This means that if you DO NOT finish a certain activity ON TIME you WILL NOT BE ABLE TO FINISH IT AT ALL and will have to move to the next one, ultimately this means it is highly unproductive and foolish.
And something I really want to stress here is that pearl farming is very artisanal in Mexico: very little machinery is employed. And we want to keep it that way for several reasons which many may approve and others will disprove, and it may be one of the reasons why we ended up with the Fair Trade Gems seal of approval (the only pearl –so far- in this list is the “Cortez Pearl”): we have very few jobs in Mexico. Our economy just doesn’t work because it is fueled by our exports (mainly raw-goods such as oil, agriculture goods and metals) and our cheap labor-force (which is also “exported” to other countries) in manufacturing for offshore companies. If we purchased machinery that would allow us to avoid hiring additional workers we would be a part of the problem, not a solution…so, even if this costs us more and makes us less efficient we will continue on this path.
In a future post we’ll explain a little more about our labor strategies.
Pearl Culture Period
The longer the pearl resides inside its “mother” or “host” oyster, the bigger it becomes and the more “pearl” (nacre) it will have…but this also means you must continue to grow your pearl oysters for longer time periods. Many sources state that the pearl culturing period in Japan took between 2 to 4 years to complete, the Akoya pearl ending up with a very good coating of 0.95 mm (Ward, 1995). This good nacre coating made it possible for the pearl to look beautiful, lustrous and have the endurance –basically, to pass the test of time- that all gems should have.
But many in the pearl-industry noticed that most consumers would not be able to tell the difference between a thickly-coated pearl and one with a thin-nacre coating. Thus, a bad practice was initiated in the industry and pearl culturing periods fell to –in some cases- down to less than 6 months (with a coating of less than 0.2 mm, once again Ward, 1995 is the source). This saved farmers a lot of money in wages & cages…but, was it really worth it?
This issue was addressed quite some time ago by many in the pearl industry, but a particularly strong voice was that of the late Australian Pearl Farmer & Consultant C. Denis George, who in 1971 stated:
“The Japanese technicians are insisting that this thin cultivation [of the pearl] does not make any difference in the appearance of the pearl, but in my opinion this is beside the point and does make a lot of difference in the principles involved and their material value in dollars paid by the customer in the belief she is acquiring a pearl of value… This resulted in many losing their trust in pearls, other withdrawing from the industry or going bankrupt; and many scores of thousands of women all over the world…became bitterly disappointed when their treasure faded.” (Excerpt from “The Black Pearls: History and Development”. 1971. Lapidary Journal).
From a farmer’s perspective, there are many situations that will make you consider against having longer pearl culture periods, such as:
- Global Warming & Hurricanes
- Age of your Pearl Oysters
But regardless of these situations, a pearl farmer should have set his farm’s goal for nacre thickness and stick to it as much as possible. For instance, our pearl culturing period ranges from 18 to 24 months (after the moment the pearl oyster is operated), and this allows us to harvest pearls with an excellent nacre coating of 1.5 mm around the nucleus, although many pearls will grow over 2.0 mm of nacre, some will grow less than the 0.8 mm minimum acceptable standard. You really have to stick to this minimum culture period because you simply cannot accept anything below the 0.8 mm thickness mark…if the pearl falls below this number it has got to go down the drain (pearly gehenna: the pearls must be cast to the deep waters of the Sea of Cortez, where bacteria will recycle their materials).
Compare this to the Tahitian Pearl Ministry’s quality check for Tahitian black pearls in the year 2001:
“…the minimum nacre thickness requirement for all exported Tahitian pearls at 0.6 mm went into effect on Sept.1. The assembly voted to bump that minimum up to 0.8 mm beginning July 2002.” (“Tahitian Government to Improve Pearl Exports” by Victoria Gomelsky in Gemstone News. National Jeweler. September 2001 page 28).
This actually means that many in the pearl industry are –or were- producing pearls with a nacre thickness that is simply not adequate, and this affects those producers that are interested in keeping a high quality standard in their pearls, because –in the end- all pearls are considered as equals by many customers. Not so.
- Pearl Oysters are an important species in their local ecosystems, but too much of a good thing can ruin things for all so it is really important that you do not disrupt your environment’s carrying capacity by overwhelming it with billions of pearl oysters: healthy oysters will produce exceptional pearls.
- Keep your Local Jobs: If we were all able of making our companies thrive, then let us keep our local jobs truly local, by offering good wages and good working conditions; we might lose money by NOT having workers in other countries do the work we could on our own, but we would fuel OUR economy. If we all did our part our economy would grow and we would not have people leaving this Country for the one up north.
- Keep your Pearl Quality High: Good pearls are the first to go! Pearl buyers are always looking for the pearl of a lifetime…the pearl that will make them gasp in awe! Low quality pearls are good for trinkets or for feeding your local bacteria. Would like to finish this subject with a mention from the Bible:
45 “Again, the kingdom of heaven is like a merchant looking for fine pearls. 46 When he found one of great value, he went away and sold everything he had and bought it.”
So, what do you think about this subject? Should producers consider the Environment as their Ally or as a “bloody nuisance”? What should you -as a pearl buyer- consider as a good trade-off? Please let me know your thoughts…in the comments area.
On our next post we’ll detail some of the reasons for not growing pearls for longer periods of time and some of the ways how pearl farming can affect the environment…both in a positive and a negative manner.
On December, 2010, we had an unexpected visitor to our farm: Richard D. Fisher, author of some of my favorite books about Mexico’s Copper Canyon and the Sea of Cortez, such as: “National Parks of Northwest Mexico”, and his latest “Copper Canyon: Chihuahua, Mexico”. Not only is the information on the books interesting and quite accurate, but they also have valuable historical, geological and ethnographic information and EXCELLENT PHOTOS. So, you may imagine my surprise when I met Richard in a Bus Tour group from our friends at “A Closer Look Tours”…I was honored to take the whole group to a complete tour of our pearl farm and –as usual- answer our visitor’s questions regarding the subject of pearls (one of these days I will write a Blog-post with the most common and interesting questions we’ve been asked), and guess who asked one of the “best questions” we’ve been asked over the years? Yes, it was Richard D. Fisher indeed, and the question was: “Did the Japanese really Poison the Sea of Cortez’s Pearl Beds in the 1940’s???”
Let us ponder on this story, so let us go back to the early years of the 20th Century…
From 1900 to 1920:
In those days, the Mexican Pearl Fisheries were still quite active throughout the Gulf of California, but mainly around the Southern tip of the Lower California peninsula (Baja California Sur), with La Paz acting as the main pearl trade-hub. Skin divers were still very much active in the fisheries, but after several hundreds of years of “pearling”, the pearl beds had become less plentiful, thus a new breed of diver was needed: the Helmeted Diver. And these were few in numbers but could work for hours and could go deeper than the typical skin diver, thus it was possible to find larger –older- oysters in deeper waters and fetch some larger pearls.
At the same moment, Dr. Gastón Vivés had his farm up and running quite successfully until 1914 when it was destroyed by the “Constitutionalist Army” during the Mexican Revolution. And from this moment on, the only pearls that could be obtained from these waters were the 100% natural pearls from wild-caught oysters (as opposed to the natural pearls from farm-raised oysters from Dr. Vivés’ black lip farm). And you may imagine that during a civil war people become even more impoverished and will have to resort to sacking their most valuable natural resources in order to obtain funds to sustain them…and this is what probably happened to the pearl beds in the area once the “Pearling Companies” (mostly Mexican, but some even from Great Britain and other parts of Europe) stopped their operations during and after the Revolution.
From 1921 to 1940:
This is a particularly bleak period for the pearl fisheries. The beds on the Baja California side had become commercially exhausted (meaning: no sense in fishing them anymore), but had time to “revive” on the mainland side (mainly in Sonora and Sinaloa). A couple of areas were particularly good “placeres” (name given to places were a given resource is abundant): the waters in front of Caborca and those around “Isla Tiburón”, were the fishery was conducted by the Seri Indian Nation. But in any case, the pearls were on the brink of becoming a legend…then, complete disaster struck the area: in 1939 a “mysterious disease” was traveling from the northern part of the Gulf of California, moving southwards and killing every single black lipped pearl oyster, leaving just empty shells which were identified by the local fishermen due to their silvery shine…
By 1940 the few remaining pearl beds in the Gulf had been decimated and the Cortez Pearl became the newest addition to the vast collection of Mexican fables, stories, myths and legends.
The Japanese Conspiracy Theory
In the late 1930’s most Mexican people were not really thinking of the future “space race” nor with “little green men” and had little interest in such “conspiracy theories”…but this does not mean that our fishermen lacked from imagination nor ideas. They actually began to wonder what some boats with “rising sun” flags and men from a different language and race were doing inside their Gulf…and these men seemed quite suspicious: they anchored here and dropped little devices into the water, retrieved them and then moved to another spot and repeated the process and, yet, they never seemed to fish anything! Also, instead of the friendly exchange of products (cigars, gas, bait, etc.) that they seemed to enjoy with other fishermen –regardless of nationality- these guys were overly serious and would not trade a thing!!! They must be up to some mischief indeed!!!
Back in 1939, many Mexican fishermen still remembered the importance of their pearl fisheries and considered the local pearl oysters as a useful food & shell resource that might reward them with a very valuable gem…if they were truly lucky. Some people had heard that the Japanese had begun producing cultured pearls and that they seemed to be unparalleled in their ability to produce them; still, many believed that cultured pearls were no match to the “real thing” (the natural pearl) and that Mexico would once again become a major league player in the World’s pearl markets.
So, add ingredient #1 (the presence of “tricksy” Japanese in the Gulf) and ingredient #2 (the Return of the Mexican Pearl) and you basically have created a plot, a Japanese conspiracy to POISON the Sea of Cortez and destroy any possible rival for the Japanese Cultured Pearl: the Japanese vessels were dropping poison into the pearl beds to kill their opponent before it had a chance to get back on its feet. And you wouldn’t believe how many people heard of this plot, and how many talk about it as a certifiable truth: people from Guaymas, from La Paz, from Hermosillo, from Mexico City…everyone!
Now, is there any truth in this plot? Could the Japanese have really killed off the pearl beds?
The Facts and the Myths
It is a fact that many Japanese vessels with Japanese men were in the Sea of Cortez in the late 1930’s, and they were definitively up to something, but it is highly unlikely they were sent on a mission to kill pearl oysters. Why? Because with the technology available in those days it is very unlikely they could have possessed a toxin or poison made specially to kill pearl oysters…any other poison must have killed other creatures as well: all sorts of clams, snails and maybe even fish that the fishermen would have noticed. But no it did not. Even today (2011) I am not aware of a toxin that will only kill pearl oysters…and I hope it is never invented!
So, what were the Japanese doing here if not killing oysters?!?! Well, check your timeline and you will notice that the “Pacific War” officially begun in December 17th, 1941 and Japan went into war with the United States of America, Mexico’s northern neighbor. So, could it be possible that the Japanese were taking depth measurements of areas in the Sea of Cortez??? Could they possibly have planned an attack into U.S. soil from Mexico in order to avoid the heavily defended California coast??? It does sound as a possibility…doesn’t it? Unfourtunately I don’t have any information on this subject…so let us hope that Wikileaks will produce these in a couple of years.
What caused the Mass Mortalities???
This is also an interesting subject. The “official” explanation given by the Mexican Government was that it had been caused by an unknown epidemic (epizootic disease), but they never gave any scientific proof to the fact or they just wanted an easy explanation to what seemed to be a lost cause, because from that moment on (1939) the Pearl Fishery was considered officially closed and a fishing ban was imposed on the capture or fishery of the Mexican Black Lipped Pearl Oyster (Pinctada mazatlanica).
But there were other interesting things happening at the same time, such as…the operation of the United States’ great “Hoover Dam”. Let me place a quote from Wikipedia’s here to further explain:
The changes in water use caused by Hoover Dam’s construction has had a large impact on the Colorado River Delta. The construction of the dam has been credited as causing the decline of this estuarine ecosystem. For six years, after the construction of the dam and while Lake Mead filled, virtually no water reached the mouth of the river. The delta’s estuary, which once had a freshwater-saltwater mixing zone stretching 40 miles (64 km) south of the river’s mouth, was turned into an inverse estuary where the level of salinity was higher close to the river’s mouth.
The Colorado River had experienced natural flooding before the construction of the Hoover Dam. The dam eliminated the natural flooding, which imperiled many species adapted to the flooding, including both plants and animals. The construction of the dam decimated the populations of native fish in the river downstream from the dam. Four species of fish native to the Colorado River, the Bonytail chub, Colorado pikeminnow, Humpback chub, and Razorback sucker, are currently listed as endangered.
If “Hoover Dam” began operating in 1936 and it is known that 6 years later (1942) there was no more fresh-water flowing unto the Gulf of California, then we can begin to imagine the environmental consequences. The “Colorado River” had its waters discharging into the Gulf for millions of years and then…kaput! No more water for you! So, what are the possible consequences: the impact was felt almost immediately on the Gulf’s northern region and its wetlands, but the effect had to creep down as the lack of freshwater made the Gulf of California “saltier” (the “average” salinity of the world’s ocean is 3.5%, with that of the Sea of Cortez being almost 3.6%) and a higher salinity level usually means less dissolved oxygen (which marine animals will use to breathe from the water). Besides this fact we can imagine that many other substances came with the river’s waters, including silt and many minerals…all these possibly very important to sustain a variety of marine plants and microscopic algae, creatures that are considered the basis of most marine ecosystems.
You may say “but the river’s water stopped flowing in 1942 and the oysters died in 1939!!!”, and yes…that is a fact, but the fact remains that there was less water available each year since the dam’s inauguration and by 1939 this was already causing havoc on our local ecosystems.
Have we finally pinpointed the truth to this dire plot or conspiracy theory? Not at all. I believe that there is still much to be done to reach this point, but a possibility would be that we could have indeed had a negative effect from “Hoover Dam” and this combined with the overfishing of the pearl beds and maybe we even had an epidemic or –just to make matters worse- an unknown environmental change. In any case: the Japanese are not to blame. They did not poison the Sea of Cortez to kill off a potential commercial threat.
I would also like to point out that I am in no way now blaming the American people for this disaster (we played our own part in this tragedy), and in those days (1930’s) few people knew or cared or understood how significant something like this truly was. Even now, few Nations are willing to consider Nature as a “User” of a given natural resource. In the meantime, we might speculate that our pearl oysters have had time to adapt to their “new” environment and –if given the opportunity- they will be able to repopulate our waters once more.