Archive for the 'Natural History' Category
Well, we are back from Mexico City and the 2012 Edition of the “Gilberto” X-mas Bazar, it was a long and strenuous week of work but very fruitful. We hope we will be able to do next year’s edition and fortify the relationships we’ve forged this year. By the way: we did something we were NOT supposed to do (ever!) but everything was just peachy: The three of us traveled to Mexico City on the same plane, together. Period.
The thing is that we had made a promise –years ago- to avoid being together on airplane and car trips, this in order to minimize the risks of having all three of us perishing in an accident and leaving our Cortez Pearl Farm as a poor orphan…what would happen to the farm? Who could take care of our oysters? Who will seed them? Fortunately for us and for our 120 thousand smiling little oysters: we came back, safe and sound.
Anyway, I am writing a full account of the “Bazar Gilberto” event in our Spanish Edition of the Blog, but I will not re-write it in English. But if you are interested please let me know and I can surely change my mind. At present my mind is up for a re-writing of the famous “Pearl Fluorescence” video (with almost 17,000 views on YouTube), so we have new photos, more details and a much better video; I guess we are off to a good start!
What is Fluorescence? Simply put: you can see it when something emits a glow. Many minerals display this attribute, specially when exposed to Ultraviolet light (a form of radiation that is invisible to our eyes) and the way they glow –I’ll call it fluorescence from now on- can be unique and can help to distinguish from one substance/material to another. In gemology it is very useful to distinguish between real (cultured & natural) pearls and fakes/imitations.
In the case of pearls, the light you must use for this test is a Long Wave Ultraviolet lamp. Short wave lamps just don’t have what it takes to make this test work. If interested in buying one of these lamps I can recommend a fairly inexpensive LED light that can become your pearl’s delight and even your children’s favorite “camping toy” (Warning: Never, ever, allow anyone to look directly into the light!), since it can help you find scorpions at night (yes, some life forms also fluoresce!). This is both fun and scary, since on one occasion I realized we were surrounded by several dozens of these desert denizens and spent a rather sleepless night.
Anyway, you won’t be disappointed in the versatility you gain by purchasing one of these inexpensive UV lamps: you can find scorpions, mites, blood stains and even make your pearls fluoresce. Now that you are well equipped, let’s go and use the lamp!
Shine on You Crazy Pearl
I don’t really care for diamonds nor for many other gemstones… they are not “my thing”, but I can go crazy over all types of pearls (and I also enjoy all types of Opals and Amber) and this is what actually happened when I started taking some photos of pearls under long-wave UV: I went into a “Pearl under UV” frenzy… I photographed as many pearl varieties as possible under long-wave UV just to see the reaction of all these pearls to the fluorescence test. I do hope you will find the result interesting if not fascinating.
And of course, I cannot place all the results here at the same time, so I will produce several short posts with the results and a discussion, and we’ll have some less traditional pearls to test, such as: Abalone, Clam, Conch & Marine Mussel, as well as the whole array of Cultured Pearls (Akoya, Freshwater, South Seas and Tahitian blacks), Mabe Pearls, Fakes/Imitations and even some Natural pearls. Some of these pearls have very interesting reactions to long wave UV so keep posted.
In the meantime I leave you with a taste of the fun we will have with this test…a found this little critter in one of my work-boots last year. I keep him in my office as a good luck charm, and here we have him “hugging” (to the left) a freshwater pearl and to the right a Cortez Pearl.
Anyway, be safe and always look inside your boots before you wear them on!
BTW: This little Desert denizen –and the pearls- are glowing/fluorescing thanks to the use of our UV lamp.
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!
And here we are again, trying to explain to the unique feelings we get during the month of September…once again, these being the unique perspective of a Pearl farmer. So, last time I was telling you about how the intense waves caused by a hurricane or tropical storm may destroy our farm (just the way it happened back in 2003) and how we have found a way to avoid this problem; let us continue with this story then.
The easiest strategy to follow is to increase the anchoring on the farm. Each long-line is anchored to the bottom by its ends, so this is so very obvious. Yet, it is not easy. Why? Because we use the anchoring system that is possible for us to us…technically speaking. You see, we live in an area that is basically devoid of certain services that would make our lives easier, so we don’t have specialized companies that have the boats needed to carry the larger and heavier dead weights we would need. If our boats even tried carrying that load they would simply sink!
Since this option is not available we have to find another solution, and the one we found is a temporary one: to reduce flotation (buoys) during the month of September. With this incredibly simple solution we are able of keeping our lines in place, and only if we had a very strong hurricane in our area we would remove ALL flotation and allow the farm to sink. Then it is a Race agaist Time…for our pearl oysters and for us, the farmers.
Why a race? Well, you have to see things as they are underwater…imagine the bottom of our bay: mainly covered with sand, with some areas that have rocks and shells in what seems to resemble some little islands or atolls in a “sea of sand”. This area has quite a good amount of pearl oyster predators, such as: the Octopus, the trigger-fish, starfishes and a whole bunch of carnivorous snails. In the case of the bottom-dwellers (all those predators that cannot swim) just picture them staring up to our protective cages that harbor hundreds of oysters each…as if this was just one immense buffet up in the sky.
So, the moment all flotation is removed the weight of the oysters in the cages makes the line collapse to the bottom. Again, I imagine all these little predators crying out with pleasure :”Manna from Heaven!”…and this is when the race begins. Starting this moment the cages will begin to be covered up with predators and they will begin to eat the oysters. Of course! We forgot about the protective mesh of the cages, the predators will never catch the oysters! If only this were true…
Most of these predators have some very efficient adaptations that allow them to by-pass the cage’s protections; snails usually have a long proboscis and starfish even have the ability to project their digestive system out of their bodies (if interested, just look at this video, at around minute 1:49 you’ll see the action). So, at this point imagine that our fearsome predators basically take out their straws, they sink these inside the oysters and they just “drink down” a nice protein shake. Just what the Doctor ordered! As you can see, the cages are an excellent protection from fishes, but not from snails nor starfish.
Raising the Farm Up again!
Of course, the best thing to do is just raise up the farm to its normal operation depth. It’s just a matter of diving down to the sunken lines (at a depth between 7 to 10 meters) and start re-attaching the floats. But this is easier said than done. Have you ever tried to sink down a float? It’s really hard and depending on the float’s size it is impossible. So, this is not an option…let’s try something else, but first get your crew ready for work because it is going to be a long day just trying to replace hundreds of floats on all our long-lines. And just when you thought it was safe to go back in the water, guess what happens? Your crew, your workers…they don’t show up for work. Why?!?!? Don’t they care for their little oysters?!?!? Well, a terrible hurricane has just struck the area, that means that the city is flooded, roads destroyed, no electricity, no buses…the workers might even have to help their neighbors and friends and relatives since their houses might have become flooded or maybe they are staying over at a disaster shelter. It might take them days to finally come back to work. And during this time…the predators become even more plentiful than before, they can smell death and they –slowly, but surely- reach their destination…
Also, the boats have to be lowered back to the farm’s dock. They have been taken out of the water and into dry land to help them survive the cathastrophe, but without our workers there is not much we can do. The waters are murky and muddied after a storm, so visibility is null: you cannot even see your hand if you extend it in front of your hand. And thus you now understand why prayer is such a great comfort and such a viable option. It is much better to be spared of the wrath of the hurricane than being prepared for one.
In the case of the farm’s undeniable touristic attraction this month is also bad. During this month we give most of our workers a lengthy vacation (paid, of course!) and the skeleton team is left repairing nets and our land based facilities only: the oysters are left in the ocean for the duration of this month and they are neither cleaned nor handled; so when visitors arrive to the farm they just don’t get to see much action. We apologize for this inconvenience, but this is the best thing to do for our Rainbow Lipped oysters: they deserve a vacation as well.
What do I love of this month? Well, besides the food there is this other thing: THE ARRIVAL OF NEW JEWELRY. It is an exciting time to see the new jewelry from our designers! And this year we have some exciting items to share with you, such as:
- The “Opuntia” Pendant by Carlos Cabral: a unique piece of jewelry that clearly cries out “Mexican Gems”!!! This is a hand-forged item made with pure 0.950 Mexican Silver and set with all-Mexican gemstones: it has a big & colorful Blister Mabe Pearl and 3 Cortez Keshi pearls, but it also features a beautiful piece of Amber from the State of Chiapas and a Mexican Fire Opal from Querétaro. The shape of the pendant remembers us of the shape of the prickly pear cactus, and hence the name of Opuntia, which is the scientific name (genus) of this variety of desert plant.
- Our latest Cortez Keshi Pearl Necklace: this very special pearl necklace was made using the best keshi pearls from this year’s pearl harvest. The necklace has 85 keshi pearls starting in size at about 3.8 mm and the larger ones measure up to 6.5×9.0 mm, the necklace has a very baroque Cortez Pearl as well, uniquely colored, that measures 9.1 mm, so the whole array measures 17.5 inches in lenght.
- The New Designs made by Alejandra will be here soon! Just had a glimpse of the new earrings with keshi pearls and they are truly one of a kind!
Anyway, once you get to see this in perspective I do hope you will understand why we have all these “mixed feelings” during the month of September. Shana Tova and see you next time!
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.
We are still caught in the middle of the 2012 Pearl Harvest, so I have been too busy to post these last weeks: it has been a most interesting summer! Not only do we have the harvest, but we had the chance to have some very special guests here at the farm in what has been called a “Cortez Pearl Safari”.
This event was coordinated from Mexico City’s by GIA accredited gemologist Diana Benoit-Seegrove (Director of the “Instituto Geológico y de Alta Relojería de México, A.C.) . So, at the start of the month of June we had some 26 visitors at the farm, who visited us for two days, in order to:
- Harvest Pearls!
- Learn about the History of the Gulf of California pearl
- Pearl Quality & Grading
- Shop for Cortez Pearls
Our special guests were treated in full V.I.P. fashion: the choiciest oysters for harvesting, a trip to the pearl farm, they even had the chance of performing the solemn yearly “Pearl Offering” (when we basically dispose of all the pearls that did not attain our quality standards), they were offered delicious pearl-scallop delicacies as well (ceviche & aguachile) made from the delicious meat of the “Rainbow Lipped” pearl oyster.
This event was a tremendous success and had to be repeated just one week ago with a different, smaller, group of talented designers and jewelry owners.
Does this sound interesting to you? Would you like to participate in next year’s “Cortez Pearl Safari”? Just give us a call and we’ll find a way to fit you in.
And here I am again, adding the finishing touch on what is my version of the legend of “El Mechudo”. My story is different from all previously released versions, as it has no supernatural elements (“Satanic intervention”).
To add this new twist on the old legend, I will present the evidence used throughout this Blog’s series of “The Legend of El Mechudo”: from the place where these events unfold, to the demystification of the “claws of death” and now the “silent killer” (in this case: it is not stress). I -for one- simply cannot believe that an experienced diver was caught by a pearl oyster and then he just drowned. It takes something much more lethal than a pearl oyster to drown a proffessional pearl diver.
Therefore: if it was not the Devil himself nor a pearl oyster… What really caused the tragic death of “El Mechudo”?
As Delilah to Samson
Just as the biblical Samson, our mythical diver had a magnificent mane of hair which probably had some special meaning to him. And I have reasons to believe that his long hair was partially responsible for his untimely death. If Delilah was the one responsible for bringing about Samson’s misfortune, who was this Sonoran diver’s Delilah? Let us review a bit about the pearl oyster’s natural history to better understand what might have happened.
Habitat of the “Panamic Black-Lip Oyster”
The Black Lip Pearl Oyster -known as “Madreperla” in Mexico- is Pinctada mazatlanica, a bivalve that is found attached -by means of its byssus-to rocks, encrusting corals and other bivalves. As it was shown in the previous post’s video, it is not very difficult to detach them from their anchoring spot. As for the oyster’s habitat: I really do not percieve any danger for a long-haired diver here.
Do remember that “El Mechudo” is said to have secured his long-hair (probably with some rope or even turning his own hair into a knot), but it is not difficult to imagine it could have come loose after hours of diving. Here is where the danger truly resides.
For anyone who has dived or snorkeled in the waters of the Gulf of California, is easy to remember that there’s really nothing in the water or the sea-bed that can entangle you. Due to the lack of rivers reaching the Gulf, there are few contributions of earth-bound material such as tree branches and shrubs, and it is not easy to entangle your hair between stones, so where’s the danger? Let us analyze the next species and its habitat.
The Habitat of the “Rainbow Lip Oyster”
The “Concha Nácar” or “Rainbow Lip Oyster” (Pteria sterna) is a very special animal in regard to its “taste” for settlement. It is adapted to a wide variety of habitats: rocky and coral reefs, on top of the shell of other bivalves, forming “carpet clumps” on sandy-muddy areas and –especially- they can be found living on gorgonian -or fan- corals. Additionally, their byssus is much more stronger than that of the Black-lip pearl oysters, and it takes a lot more effort to detach them from their anchoring spot.
Final Remarks & Video
A fan coral is the “perfect trap” for a long-haired pearl diver. During the shooting of the video about this legendary character I used a doll with a “wig” (one of the most difficult things I’ve recently done: I’d rather juggle with sea urchins anytime), and everytime the fake hair was near the fan coral it would easily entangle itself, becoming a small burden to dissentangle the hair for a new video shoot.
Additionally: I have a video that shows how an oyster is unable to keep their shells closed on an object for more than just a couple of hours. The test was performed, with the help of my assistant Antonio “El Tigre” Mendoza, who helped to perform experiments -both under natural & “laboratory” conditions- and we obtained consistent results in “oyster retention”: usually of less than 60 minutes on each tryout.
The following video was produced in order to show you how the oyster releases its grip after some time. For this I used one of my son’s “GI Joe” action figure, around which we devised a floating system (to simulate the upward flotation pull of a victim) and continuous video filming was performed until the oyster released its “little victim”. As a note of interest, you will notice that there are a couple of “curious sea-hares” (Aplysia californica) that appear during the video…this might be as close as they can get to become part of a “feature film”, hence the attraction (I guess).
Thus, based on all the information we have talked about during this series of blog entries (and in the best “Clue” game fashion) I dare say the following:
“El Mechudo” dove to deeper waters to try and release a “Rainbow Lip Oyster” that was attached to a large fan coral (these larger specimens are usually found in deeper waters) but his hair became entangled. He could not use a knife to cut his hair free (because slave divers were not given such a weapon)…thus the great Yaqui diver drowned. Satan must be declared blameless.
The only way the body of this diver could have remained in the same site for days or weeks (once the body fills with gases form decomposition it would float away) is if it was firmly attached to a coral…any oyster would have released the hand of a dead diver within hours.
And here I am back, with a strong desire to revisit the series of posts about the legendary pearl diver knows as "El Mechudo", and on this instance we will cover the most grim and tragic event from the history of this legend: the death of this blasphemous Yaqui pearl diver.
The last time we dealt with this subject was back in January 6th with the entry of “Who was ‘El Mechudo’?”, and on that occasion we detailed the possible site from where the pearl oysters where being fished and where this legendary diver is said to have drowned. Now comes the time to analyze and dissect the manner of his tragic death by reviewing several versions of this legend:
“One of the many Yaqui indians -before he slid into the watery embrace to find the pearl that belonged to the Virgin- said “I am claiming the pearl for the Devil”… Chronicles tell us that the unfortunate man never came out of the sea and that all his companions fled in terror and commenting on the outcome of that terrible blasphemy.” (Author and Date unknown)
Another version of the event, cited by Fernando Jordan (1967) even mentions that: Satan took the fisherman’s word, and the fisherman did not reappear and the waters did not return his body. The place is now taboo and no one goes there to fish for pearls. Those who have seen -at the bottom- the ghost of the blasphemous diver, who has grown long haired and beard. He seems alive and in his hand he holds a huge Black-lip pearl oyster shell. Or even this version, that I personally heard –totally devoid of the supernatural-in La Paz about 10 years ago, and which I have adapted as follows: ‘El Mechudo’ went once more into the salty embrace of those turquoise waters…never coming out again. But there was no time to find out what had happened to him…bad weather just made it impossible. The next morning the fishing armada made it to the same spot and the divers plunged into the waters. A certain diver screamed out "I found him! I found him!" and every single diver moved into that spot. What they saw was a spectral image: the lifeless body of "El Mechudo" still clutching the giant oyster that had caught his hand in self-defense… his long hair had come loose and flowed all around him. The very obvious cause of death of the legendary diver is by drowning, and this could have occurred due to many causes: fatigue, vascular problems, he could have become "entangled" in some way or have suffered the attack of an animal. The legend somehow suggests that the pearl oyster might have had something to do with his death: that the diver’s hand had been captured by the oyster, preventing him from surfacing. But in addition, we understand that there is a permanence of the drowned diver on the site, his body being found there later… and this in turn ends the legend with a “haunted pearl bed”, an accursed ghost that scares off all other divers. So, the death of “El Mechudo” leads us to the myth of the “killer clam”, the basic premise being a clam -or pearl oyster- that is big and heavy enough to keep a diver from surfacing…just long enough for him to drown. And in this case the oyster is also able of keeping the captured hand (alongside the rest of the body) clutched down a sufficient amount of time (at least over 24 hours) for the other divers to find his a body in the same spot. This would give rise to the myth of the “Murderous Oyster” (to give it a quirky adjective). Is this possible at all? Can an oyster keep a man trapped that long? Let us find out…
Another version of the event, cited by Fernando Jordan (1967) even mentions that:
Satan took the fisherman’s word, and the fisherman did not reappear and the waters did not return his body. The place is now taboo and no one goes there to fish for pearls. Those who have seen -at the bottom- the ghost of the blasphemous diver, who has grown long haired and beard. He seems alive and in his hand he holds a huge Black-lip pearl oyster shell.
Or even this version, that I personally heard –totally devoid of the supernatural-in La Paz about 10 years ago, and which I have adapted as follows:
‘El Mechudo’ went once more into the salty embrace of those turquoise waters…never coming out again. But there was no time to find out what had happened to him…bad weather just made it impossible. The next morning the fishing armada made it to the same spot and the divers plunged into the waters. A certain diver screamed out "I found him! I found him!" and every single diver moved into that spot. What they saw was a spectral image: the lifeless body of "El Mechudo" still clutching the giant oyster that had caught his hand in self-defense… his long hair had come loose and flowed all around him.
The very obvious cause of death of the legendary diver is by drowning, and this could have occurred due to many causes: fatigue, vascular problems, he could have become "entangled" in some way or have suffered the attack of an animal. The legend somehow suggests that the pearl oyster might have had something to do with his death: that the diver’s hand had been captured by the oyster, preventing him from surfacing. But in addition, we understand that there is a permanence of the drowned diver on the site, his body being found there later… and this in turn ends the legend with a “haunted pearl bed”, an accursed ghost that scares off all other divers.
So, the death of “El Mechudo” leads us to the myth of the “killer clam”, the basic premise being a clam -or pearl oyster- that is big and heavy enough to keep a diver from surfacing…just long enough for him to drown. And in this case the oyster is also able of keeping the captured hand (alongside the rest of the body) clutched down a sufficient amount of time (at least over 24 hours) for the other divers to find his a body in the same spot. This would give rise to the myth of the “Murderous Oyster” (to give it a quirky adjective). Is this possible at all? Can an oyster keep a man trapped that long? Let us find out…
The "Mortal Clamp"
Pearl oysters are bivalve mollusks that have a strong adductor muscle which is used to achieve the closure of its two shells, this is used in order for the oyster to protect itself and avoid being eaten by predators; a bivalve’s life is partially dependent on its ability to close and keep its shells closed. If we introduce our fingers into an oyster it will certainly close its valves and it will clamp our hand… and what happens if we cannot release from its hold? In a few minutes we will drown.
Now, even if the oyster closes its shell with our hand in it, what prevents us from simply coming up with the oyster to the surface? Well, oysters are strongly attached to their living place (usually on rocks, corals and other shells) by means of a myriad of thin, elastic fibers referred to as "byssal threads" which are secreted by the byssal gland. These fibers look a bit like plastic, are somewhat elastic and very resistant, but will it be able to securely anchor the oyster when a person is desperately fighting for dear life? To answer both questions, I conducted the following “experiment”: I went “pearl diving” securing several Black lip pearl oysters (Pinctada mazatlanica), and intentionally placing my fingers inside them to simulate the “mortal clamp” and then it was a matter of coming out with my life. The result of this simple experiment can be seen in this short video:
Now, even if the oyster closes its shell with our hand in it, what prevents us from simply coming up with the oyster to the surface? Well, oysters are strongly attached to their living place (usually on rocks, corals and other shells) by means of a myriad of thin, elastic fibers referred to as "byssal threads" which are secreted by the byssal gland. These fibers look a bit like plastic, are somewhat elastic and very resistant, but will it be able to securely anchor the oyster when a person is desperately fighting for dear life?
To answer both questions, I conducted the following “experiment”: I went “pearl diving” securing several Black lip pearl oysters (Pinctada mazatlanica), and intentionally placing my fingers inside them to simulate the “mortal clamp” and then it was a matter of coming out with my life. The result of this simple experiment can be seen in this short video:
The first fishing event –described as “Capture #1” in the video- shows the usual living place for black-lips in Guaymas: attached to rocky reefs at depths ranging from almost surface level and down to some 10 meters in depth (20 feet). The oysters are now –once again- seen forming small clusters, and several of these make up for a pearl bed. I dislodged oysters quite easily…in just seconds and with no effort.
Fishing event "Capture # 2", was carried out at a depth of 4 meters (13 feet), on sandy bottom (but littered with pebbles and shell bits of various bivalves). On this substrate, pearl oysters usually attach to shells and on the video it is clearly visible how the oyster is easily released and comes up with a fragment of a “pen shell”. The oyster measured 10 cm (4 inches) in diameter and had another -smaller- pearl oyster “piggy-backing” on its shell.
In the third fishing event (capture #3), at a depth of only 3 meters (9.8 feet), we had an area of overlapping environments: mainly sandy bottom, but with the presence of encrusting corals and a small rocky reef nearby. I located a small group of black-lips and it was extremely easy to release a group of three oysters simultaneously.
And finally, I introduced my fingers several times inside different black-lip oysters and every time I obtained the same result: the oysters quickly closed their shells on my fingers and they held me as hard as it was possible for them, yet it was very easy to release my fingers in just seconds, thus my life was never in any danger. Just in case my mother or my wife ever read this blog entry: these experiments were performed at a depth of just a mere 1.50 meters (4.9 feet), so I was never under any duress nor undue risk.
And finally, I introduced my fingers several times inside different black-lip oysters and every time I obtained the same result: the oysters quickly closed their shells on my fingers and they held me as hard as it was possible for them, yet it was very easy to release my fingers in just seconds, thus my life was never in any danger. Just in case my mother or my wife ever read this blog entry: these experiments were performed at a depth of just a mere 1.50 meters (4.9 feet), so I was never under any duress nor undue risk.
How did the myth of the "Mortal Clamp" or of the "Killer Clam" (or whatever name you want to give it) emerge? Well, there are other varieties of bivalves in the World’s oceans, some being HUGE in size and of very HEAVY weight, which are quite capable of keeping a man stuck long enough to drown him. In fact, a there exists a particular animal known as the "giant clam" (Tridacna gigas), that is sometimes referred of as a “killer clam” (perfect title for a future Hollywood film), which inhabits the Indo-Pacific ocean, and which is perfectly suited to become a nightmare for any pearl diver. Just look at this cute photograph (taken from this page):
Wikipedia’s website even mentions that a U.S. Navy diver’s manual includes a technique that can be used by divers to rid themselves of the deadly clamp of this species of clam, and refers to the death of a Phillipino pearl diver which drew the gigantic “Pearl of Lao Tzu”, a huge calcareous concretion (or non-nacreous pearl) that was obtained from one of these giant clams.
- It’s really not all that difficult to fish for pearl oysters, given that there is sufficient abundance of them; the hardest thing about “pearl diving” will be the depth you have to dive down to in order to extract them and this only if you are using your lung capacity.
- There is no real danger of drowning once you are “captured” by a black-lip’s valves: its “claw of death” lacks the necessary strength to maintain an unbreakable grip. Furthermore: it is not difficult to remove them from their attachment point in the unlikely case they do.
Until next time…
And we are back, with what will be the New Year’s first installment of our Cortez Pearl Blog, and for this year we hope to become your source for all interesting pearl related legends & environmental stories, plus other things interest. We truly can be considered a “micro-cosmic-blog” within the Internet, since all the “big bloggers” concentrate on the “macro-cosmic” nature of the internet: computers, smartphones, music, file-sharing and all sorts of money making ventures…this blog is for the few that love and care for this beautiful and unique aquatic gem: Welcome Back!
On October 5 I published the entry about “The Pearl of the Virgin” which detailed the observance of the region’s pearl divers to the Virgin of Loreto, so that she extended her mantle of protection against the dangers of the sea and to help them procure a good yield of pearls. Now it is the turn to talk about the man in whom this legend is embodied, and in order to continue our analysis we must start with a couple of questions: Who was this “Mechudo” diver? and Where did the story/legend take place?
The Identity of “El Mechudo”
On the identity of this man, very little is really known, but some information can be extracted from the myth. One thing is sure: nobody knows his name or his true origin, but all the stories tell of a diver of exceptional ability, most likely he belonged to the Sonoran Yaqui Indian Nation, and we also know that he was possessed of a huge black mane of hair, and hence the nickname of “El Mechudo” or –losely translated- “The mop” or “Long Haired One”, “mechudo” meaning “long & shaggy hair”. It is said that his diver’s was so long and dense that he never used a hat, instead, he tied his hair in a way that it served him as shade and protection from the harsh sun-rays.
Another reason we believed him to have been a native-American man -or mestizo or half-breed- from Sonora is that some sources mention another nickname that this diver also received: “Guama”, an incorrect wording of the voice “Guaima”, which was the name of a band-clan of natives (believed to have been of the Seri or Kum Kaak nation) who lived in Guaymas, at the time of the arrival of the Spaniards in Sonora. Here we have a small promotional video about this fascinating culture of the Sea of Cortez…it is in Spanish, but the photography is truly nice:
Anyway, at that the time when the legend developed, the best pearl divers were the Yaqui of Sonora, so it is inferred that he was just one of the thousands who were employed in the extraction of pearl oysters, but he could have been from any other place. But, the “Guama” nickname is basically telling us that he was a “Guaymense”, a man from Guaymas.
The Place of Action
But legend has it that our long-haired diver had no luck in fishing for pearls on a fateful day, in an unknown year of the late nineteenth century (probably in 1897, since this event is recorded in a local newspaper from La Paz), the events probably occurring between the months of May to September, when pearl fishing was practiced in the Gulf of California. But even with this information we simply do not have the way to know the exact day on which this event occurred.
Another unknow fact is the precise spot where this tragic event took place, because some documents state it happened just north of the city of La Paz, in the Baja California peninsula, whereas others went as far as mentioning more precise coordinates:
Southwest of San Jose Island and 12 km from the bay of “La Amortajada”,
40 miles north from the port of La Paz and 50 miles in front of the island of “San Francisquito”
between 24° 42′ 30″ N and 110° 40′ W (according to the old newspaper from La Paz).
However, the site is that is presently called “Punta El Mechudo” (or “Long-haired Point”) is located north of the Bay of La Paz, at 24° 48′ 26.30″ N and 110° 39′ 37.90″ W, and here we have some images of site (courtesy of Google Earth ):
A visual inspection of the area reveals that there is a small sandy beach, a good place for resting and for a fishermen’s camp; but viewed from above we hardly see the presence of “dark spots” in the water, these being an indirect indication that we are in the presence of rocky/coral reefs (or even in patches of algae), which would be suitable for pearl fishing.
Although, at a closer look we can also discover that at a relatively small distance from the point (see arrow), and at a higher depth, there are some kind of aggregates seen on top of the sandy bottom; these could be made of rocks and green coral heads (Porites sp.). These Porites or green corals are very common in the Gulf of California, and they are known to have Black-lipped pearl oysters attached to them. At this point it seems this would be a good area for pearl fishing. In the next photo you can see how these corals are shaped, depending on the environment they grow in: they are sometimes found as encrusting types (when growing on top of large rocks) and they sometimes form “clumps” or “heads” when growing in calm, shallow and sandy areas. We have been in areas where they are abundant in their massive form, as in “Espiritu Santo” Island, while in Guaymas they are often seen encrusting on rocks.
At this moment we know a lot more about the man -the main character- in our story, and we also know a lot more about the location where the legend took place. In the next installment will continue “chipping away” the legend of the “Devil’s Pearl”.
We wish all of our readers a Happy & Successful New Year!!!
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!