This will be a short entry because it is just a comment on the visit made by the production team of British TV company that produces series for a very popular television channel (whose logo is similar to a Yellow rectangle and hint: they have a magazine by the same name) whose name I cannot disclose because I we to sign a non-disclosure agreement, but this particular program is about out-of-the-ordinary farming activities, mainly interesting situations that involve the use of unusual animals that produce out of the ordinary products.
The show’s producer is Nick Patterson and he visited with cameraman Pete Allibone for an intense day of filming that included all the typical work activities in a pearl farm: the cleaning of oysters, the implant/seeding operation, the pearl harvest, diving at the farm, spat/seed collection and the traditional "release of pearls". In short: we were able of compressing four years of work in just one intense work and filming session of about 12 hours.
This is a review of some of the things that happened during the filming:
Spat/Baby Oyster Collection
The month of December is not the best for spat collection, we were basically inspecting the spat collectors we placed in the bay in the month of September (the collectors are usually left in the sea between 2 to 4 months) and we had previously checked on them and we did not find much seed in them, thus we believed this going to be a problem for the filming, but our brave “Yaqui" workers had something to say about this: "Kiko" and "Zorrito" each found 5 small Rainbow Lipped Oyster seeds (and about 10 black-lipped oyster seeds), so after just a couple of hours of anguish and uncertainty, it had been accomplished and we passed unto the next round of trials.
Diving in the Farm Farm
Despite being in the month of December at the time of the shoot, water temperature had not dropped to what we consider a "normal winter" and we still had a "nice" temperature of 20 degrees Celsius (68 F), a temperature that made Manuel, Enrique and Pete subject to intense temperature changes, since being on the boat under the sun in their wetsuits subjected them to a strong heat and then they had to jump into the icy water… I feel no need to explain how they felt.
Additionally, during Winter, the thermocline breaks due to the strong Northwest winds and this causes an intense upwelling of the colder, deeper waters, and this in turn causes an intense phytoplankton bloom, thus the waters of Bacochibampo Bay become intensely green and murky…we usually refer to this as “swimming in cold pea soup”. Pete informed us several times that the shots were extremely difficult to take and that his camera showed terrible visibility (for us, accustomed to these things, we believe that visibility "fair", because when it is "terrible" you cannot even see the palm of your hand when you extend your arm), so hopefully the images will come out okay. Wishful thinking.
The Pearl Seeding Operation
Ah! The delicate surgical operation needed for the production of a cultured pearl: an arcane technical secret protected by Japanese technicians and “rediscovered” by Mexican researchers… an operation that should take no more than 40 seconds to minimize mortality of the oyster, this complex operation will be "immortalized" in this video and I can assure you it will be amazing just because of the amount of detail and complexity that Nick and Pete imprinted on their work: the number of shots and angles will be the delight of fans of the arcane, and I just hope that their video editing work will be able to eliminate the moments when everything was going wrong: when the beads were falling off, when the mantle graft needle did not "grab" the graft-tissue and when something could go wrong it just did.
But al of these problems had an explanation in the technical needs of the shoot: the light we use to illuminate the inside of the oyster was placed in the most appropriate place for the camera and not for the grafter (me), my head was in a position that was more suited of a patient visiting the chiropractor than for one who performs an operation, otherwise the huge HD camera would not have had a clear view to the inside of the oyster.
So, after three hours of continuous shooting they may have be obtained some 40-60 seconds of usable video, but I’m hoping this will result in a very interesting segment… but you will just have to wait until March 2013 to see the final result!
The Pearl Harvest
As you are well aware, we already finished the 2012 pearl harvest and therefore we did not have any pearl oysters ready for this event; so it was necessary for us to harvest some oysters that had to be harvested until the summer of 2013. We obtained a few pearls of great beauty and amongst these a beautiful dark purple pearl. This is perhaps one reason why this program wanted to film here in Guaymas and not in Australia or Japan or China: because the color of our pearls is totally different from other pearls productions and this is something that is sure to amaze those who think that pearls are only black or white, or in short to something like 95% of the public (but not to you, faithful followers of this blog) that these TV producers hope to have for this program.
The Pearl Release
I’ve just given this name to this “annual event” because I could not think of a better way to explain it in short, but this event happens just after the harvest of pearls, and what we do is simply take all the low quality pearls and –instead of selling them- we throw them all back into the sea (in a preselected, deep area of the bay, I’m just making sure you know this so you will be discouraged to look for them), there they will be "eaten" by nacre-eating bacteria (recyclers) who will release the pearl’s chemicals back into the water, where they will once again become available for other marine organisms. This is our way to avoid low-quality pearls from reaching the market, we do not cause ourselves any embarrassing moment and we avoid any temptation, ensuring a risk-free future for the Cortez Pearl: for us, pearl quality and value is essential, not optional.
Usually, the release of these pearls is carried out in a sort of ceremony, so we individually "dedicate" this event to a given person: this year we dedicated this event to all the brave Yaqui Indians that in times past gave their lives in the pearl fisheries, and also to the little oysters that produce our pearls and allow us to earn our daily bread and finally, to all our blessed customers, the people who put their faith in our quality and appreciate the unique beauty of this Gem. For this video shoot, the ceremony was entirely visual and we had to release the pearls at sunset, from a rocky cliff on the coast, where we were trying to avoid falling. This was definitively the most dangerous of all video shots.
As the Sun fell…
After a busy day of work on the farm and with a heavy fog that hung over the bay, Nick and Pete were preparing to take time-lapse shot of the sunset over the majestic hill "Tetakawi", but the thick fog left us totally immersed in an other-worldly gray mist; I’m sure this made our intrepid Londoners feel quite at home. The truth is that I had all but given up this time (absolutely NOTHING could seen farther than 100 feet away) but this intrepid pair sought ways to find the sunset and they did: a small chink of light appeared on the horizon and they achieved some beautiful shots.
Then it was time to say goodbye amid beers at a local pub, Nick and Pete showed us some of the photographs they took at the farm and many of the shots really amazed us with their quality: some artists really are at good at what they do, and have an amazing professionalism and vision that makes them truly worthy of the "Yellow Rectangle" brand (I am not saying they work for this brand, I’m just equaling the quality of their work to that of the implied brand…ok? But I’m not saying it is not…I’m not saying anything!).
We wished these artists a good trip back home, and we were left with a series of experiences and emotions. Maybe something that really catches my attention is just how many people around us were excited and surprised saying: “Did this TV program really came just to visit the Pearl Farm????” And when Nick Patterson asked where they came from (their trip was from London to Los Angeles and then to Hermosillo and finally Guaymas) and if they had really just come to visit us… this mind-boggling for some. Another thing that apparently caught everyone’s attention was Nick’s comment about the the view from my office and how it is much better than the one in his London office: It’s true, our Bacochibampo Bay is amazing in its natural beauty.
What I can say? Not much, just that our “world” is accustomed to assign value only to the things that have been massively publicized in the media and that have received an injection of millions of dollars, and against this mentality is hard to do anything, but perhaps this bit publicity will help us to achieve some greater regional acceptance; this is something we have not been able to achieve locally: can we become prophets in our own land? Only time will give us the answer…
It has taken me more than 4 weeks to finish this entry. We are in the middle of the pearl seeding season so most of my time is spent at the farm so I have to apologize for the terrible delay in delivery, I do anticipate more delays since we will continue this crucial procedures and we will also be going to this year’s Tucson Gem show…so please bear with me.
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!
For us down here in Mexico the month of September represents many things:
For a Pearl Farmer, September also means a time for Healing and Fearfulness. This is the time when we repair our land-based facilities and use our time to mend and repair our nets, cages, aquculture lines and boats. Starting the month of October all the way down to June we have so much work with our Rainbow Lip Oysters that we do not have the time to taka care of any of these repairs. This is our time for Healing.
And what about Fear? This is the month when we get most of our tropical storms & hurricanes. If you have read some of our previous posts on Hurricane Damage on our farm and related facilities you will understand our anxiety over these powerful acts of Nature.
As always, the best option is to have seconds on the “Chiles en Nogada” and some would say this is not optional. In the case of the pearl farm we only have a couple of options:
There is a good reason to do both things, but I will specifically refer to the second option on this ocassion.
Fixing the Closet
One of the things that happen when we have a tropical storm in the area is that we have very strong winds and these will turn the surface of the bay into a great choppy mess. The waves become big (those that have visited may recall that -during summer- Bacochibampo bay is a beautiful mirror-like bay) and may have a powerful damaging effect on everything found on it, such as: flinging yachts unto the main road in San Carlos (something that happened in 2003 with hurricane “Marty”), “eating up” whatever land based facilities you have (such as a docking area) and destroying a pearl farm. How exactly can these large waves destroy a farm?
In case you don’t know how our pearl farm works, it is basically known as a “suspended culture long-line system” in the textbooks. If you are not an aquaculture expert you can refer to it as what I call “a marine closet” (with no skeletons inside): imagine you are in front of a typical closet and you have a metal-rod from which clothes are hanged (with the help of a wire hanger of course). Now: a “long-line” consists of a horizontal rope (ours are 50 meters/164 feet long) that is kept close to the surface by means of floats/buoys, and from this line of rope we “hang” our oyster cages. So, in essence these two seemingly different things work in almost the same way…but our closet is in the ocean and it would drift away unless we anchor the line, so each line is anchored to the bottom. The following diagram might clarify this a bit.
The nice thing about this kind of aquaculture system is that it is cheaper than other systems and you can use a small boat to easily gain access to your valuable “clothes” (the culture cages) just by plucking your arm into the water, grabing hold of the cage’s line we can easily drag it out of the water and then release the rope from the long-line and you’re off. A good system, barely offering any water resistance nor drag. Great to work with in winter time too, since water temperature may drop to some 15 degrees Celsius (59 Fahrenheit) and you don’t feel like getting inside the water when it is this cold!
Anyway, this great system works very well under most conditions, but hurricanes are an exception because the long-lines are tailored to a certain water depth by means of the lines that are anchored to the bottom. When the waves come in in great numbers –one after another one- and their height exceeds the operating depth what happens is that the floats will keep the main line near the surface and they basically drag the anchoring system off the bottom and the farm –as silly as it may sound- starts “jumping” like an inchworm, slowly, to where the wind & waves command it to go.
In the year 2003, hurricane “Marty” destroyed most of our farm because the lines were carried away, became entangled and many ended up in the beach…were our oysters suffocated. We had never experienced such an effect before and we have never seen it happen again because we now understand how to avoid this enemy.
There are solutions to this problem of course, some are easier to implement and others are more expensive. We managed to find a solution that is easily implemented and cheap. But let us talk of these solutions on the next episode…shall we?
“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.
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.
One nice thing about writing this blog is that it has allowed us to dig into a treasure chest of memories that span all the way back to 1993…not a lot for some, but surely more than a lifetime for some. And during these last 18 years we have seen and done many things, but even more importantly: we have met and known many people. This is perhaps the most important thing we have done here, because we know we have been able to touch many people’s lives…hopefully in a positive manner.
In this sense, our “Pearl Farm Tour” has given our “Cortez Pearl” a great audience. In the year 2008 we gave tours to almost 15,000 people, and from 2002 to 2007 our average yearly visitors were some 9,000 men, women and children from an impressive list of nationalities: the United States of America and Canada (together being almost 85% of our visitors), Mexico, Guatemala, Belize, Panama, Colombia, Ecuador, Brazil, Argentina, Chile and Peru (the Americas) and from the Ole Continent we can list France, Spain, Portugal, Germany, Austria, Italy, Belgium, England, Scotland, Norway, Sweden, Poland, Russia and Turkey. From Asia: China, Japan, South Korea, Philippines and India. From Oceania: Australia, Cook Islands and Tahiti. And we believe this is an impressive list for this “small destination” known as Guaymas.
And what made it all possible? Tourism of course!!! But this area draws a special tourist that caters for a “real” destination, not for the traditional “canned” destination. By this I don’t mean that a “real” destination is better than any other…just different, and there are people that will enjoy both kinds. An authentic destination will give you the whole enchilada: the sights, the sounds, the people…but also the smell, the taste, the heat and the cold & the insect bites. It won’t leave you feeling empty. And what a great opportunity it is to have this enchilada served with the best guacamole, refried beans and horchata: a packaged deal tour known as “The Copper Canyon-Sea of Cortez Tour”. You would get to see and experience the beauty of the Chihuahuan and Sonoran deserts, the Majesty of the Copper Canyon, the culture and flavor of towns such as El Fuerte or Álamos, and the peace and serenity of the Gulf of California in the town of San Carlos-Guaymas…this has been an incredibly successful tour since the 1990’s, drawing thousands of visitors to the area.
How the Pearl Farm Tour got its Start.
And this might come as a surprise to all the people that have visited us: it began as quite an accident. Back in 1994, when Enrique, Manuel and I were studying our Master’s Degree at the Guaymas Campus of Tec de Monterrey, we basically worked for hours (even until late at night, with only the moon as a light source) at the school’s dock, with our very basic tools and equipment: plastic buckets and trays, old kitchen knives, calipers and home-made culture cages. So, we spent countless hours getting a nice sun-tan and managing our small farm consisting of scallops, pen-shells and pearl oysters. Neither tours nor tourists…just us and our little critters.
The accident was this: for many years –can’t really say how many- our Campus had a Kitchen-Lab for those students of the “Servicios Alimentarios” (Food Services), and they made all sort of goodies there: bread, wine, fruit drinks, a complete meal and dessert. This was done for them to learn…but after the learning they had all these goodies and they sold them every Thursday at the “Restaurant”. So, many students had a chance to enjoy a nice meal, but the American and Canadian residents in San Carlos would drive to our school to enjoy this good and inexpensive meal as well! Many of these temporary residents would go back to their country of origin –usually during summer- and return when the weather got better, and they would once more visit the “Restaurant”.
But, in 1994, our school suffered at the hands of the vilest enemy you can imagine: a devastating economic crisis. The number of students was suddenly reduced to about 120, because most families were struggling and could not afford to pay tuition & boarding for their kids. So the “Restaurant” closed its doors forever. But, many of the previous visitors were not told of this…and they came back, only to find their favorite lunch spot closed and they just started wandering around the Campus. I mean, you drive some 30 minutes and then: nothing. You have to at least try to justify your fuel usage! And these good folk would just walk down to the dock and saw these 3 tanned, long-haired kids just scrapping and measuring some animals and began asking questions…and that is how the tour got its start!
I mean, we got asked all sorts of questions such as: are these for eating? Do they taste good? Why do they move like that? Whoa! Can they squirt water that far?!?!?! Does it hurt when it bites your fingers? Are you married? Or –my favorite- How can you get such a beautiful golden tan? (Answer: spend three years working under the sun for at least 8 hours a day). And the weird part is that many found our work interesting (we were yet to generate results)…so they told other Americans and Canadians, and –by word-of-mouth- many more came and we began to enjoy their company (bivalves are good natured creatures, but not very talkative) and one thing lead to another: quite unexpectedly we started giving “5 minute tours”, explaining what we wanted to do and how we were going to “Revive Mexico’s Pearling Industry”. But, you cannot seriously expect such a small thing to become a “Major Touristic Attraction”. Another ingredient was yet needed…
The Main Course
In the meantime, there were several major tour companies using the area for its attractions, but mainly focusing on the State of Chihuahua’s Copper Canyon (not really one canyon, but actually 6 series of interconnected canyons that are about 5 times larger than the “Grand Canyon” in the United States), and these companies realized the potential of using Mexico’s Northwestern States to have one huge “Copper Canyon Tour”, that would draw the attention of a larger crowd: it would grow to include the beautiful Colonial Town of El Fuerte in Sinaloa and include the Sea of Cortez at Guaymas-San Carlos, and utilize Chihuahua’s strong-points such as the Canyon at Divisadero, Creel, the city of Chihuahua, the ruins of Paquimé and the Mormon and Mennonite communities in Nuevo Casas Grandes. And their Tour Directors were looking for new attractions…and somehow they heard the story of these naïve researchers that had begun growing pearls in Guaymas, and so came the first “scouts”.
And the first to come were Sergio Corona and Carlos Gaytán (in those days they worked with Grand Circle Travel, now they work for “A Closer Look Tours”). They met with us, asked about our research and the things we were doing, saw our jewelry (at about that time -1996- we had already produced a line of Mabe pearls in Sterling Silver Jewelry) and they gave us a bit of “coaching” on how to present our pearl farming venture and ourselves to their tourist groups. And that is how this unique link between a group of Pearl Farmers and dozens of thousands of tourists was forged. Just a couple of years later we were included in these companies official brochures, websites and catalogues.
The Good, the Bad and…the Ugly
Once we had a good idea of how to promote and offer a Good tour, we took some steps to make it available not only to those travelers enjoying the comfort of a fully guided tour, but to ANY PERSON that wanted to enjoy the same experience. Thus the tour was offered for FREE and people just had to ask for their tour. And it happened: success!!! We were having more and more people daily and we would be inside our “pearl lab” and we would have people knocking on the door, the door would open and a human head would stick inside saying: “Is this the Tour???” Needless to say, we started doing tours over and over…sometimes up to 7 times a day per person, 6 days of the week. Enrique and I started hallucinating: sometimes I would dream I was doing tours in hell, and we would dread the sound of a knock-on-the-door (even when in our homes). We just could not keep up, it was unhealthy. This was the BAD.
The new strategy was to have just one tour every hour on the hour. This helped a bit, but it still took too much of our time –and concentration- when we were doing the seeding operation; under such conditions we would begin to make more mistakes in our seeded oysters, reducing the amount of pearls we were supposed to produce. A tit for a tat, some may say…but inefficient for us. So we decided to hire some help and have a professional guide (after months of training) to help us with the small tours and this was… a blessing!!! We finally could devote our time to produce beautiful pearls, without the pressure of taking care of every single person that came to our farm. This was the GOOD. And we had many people in this position, some good, some not that good, and some very good. So, using this small place I would like to thank three of the best: Rocío, Karla and Diana. I really miss you gals…
And just when we thought it was safe to keep touring the pearl farm…we were struck full-force with “Murphy’s Law”. It all began in early 2009 when our country –Mexico- was struck with the “Swine Flu Virus” or AH1N1, and this event paralyzed the country and scared many of the tourists away. It took months to see a small recovery in the number of visitors…and then we were once more hit by a pair of unbeatable foes: the World Economic Crisis –that begun in the United States in 2008 and affected the entire planet- and we shall not forget “Mexico’s Drug War” that has not been truly effective in destroying the drug cartels, but has been incredibly effective in DESTROYING our touristic industry, regardless of the fact that the State of Sonora is considered as a “Safe State” or that our National Homicide Ratio is smaller than those of many other countries, but I’m not really going into detail with statistics, I’m just going to lay it down the way it is: we lost 80% of our visitors in 2009 and the trend continued in 2010. This is definitively THE UGLY.
The New Situation
Yes, we continue to have tours thanks to many brave Canadians and Americans that are not fearful of the machine guns, grenades and killings that take place…in Afghanistan, Iraq and Libya. It is quite peaceful down here, regardless of the news. The cruise ships have kept coming into Guaymas (we’ve got 6 this year) and we still have one important tour company coming in with busloads of tourists: A Closer Look Tours.
But, the reality is that we have had to downsize and we began enjoying the Bad again and we cannot take the beating: we have a pearl farm to run and operate. So, we have once more had to focus our efforts and have introduced a minor change to our “Pearl Farm Tour”, in effect since March 28th of 2011:
- Weekdays (Mon-Fri): Guided Tours from 9 am to 2 p.m. One Tour every hour on the hour.
- Weekends: Saturdays the Tours are from 9 to 11 am (also on the hour). Sundays we are CLOSED.
- Tour Rates are $2 USD per person (children under 5 do not pay).
At any rate, if you purchase your Pearl Tour and you decide to purchase an item at the Pearl Store, you will be able to redeem this amount off your purchase.
So, our apologies to all: we kept our Pearl Farm Tour fully FREE for ONLY 15 years, but now we hope to have 15 more years to offer you a great, educational and entertaining Tour on the new schedule. I hope you didn’t find this Blog entry to be too lengthy or perhaps a bit boring…it has not been boring for me to share this abridged story to you: it has been a quite a journey –still in the making- for us and it was worth telling it.
So, to sum it up: if you do have the chance to visit our Pearl Farm please do so. If you haven’t been here in a while take the time to bring some friends over, if you have never been here…what are you waiting for?!?!?
Here we are back again with this topic that I find increasingly interesting, due in part because I have used it as a form of catharsis, allowing me to remember one of the reasons why we started a Pearl Aquaculture project -some 17 years ago- when we were still students at the Guaymas Campus of the Tec de Monterrey. In those days, we first wanted to understand the reasons or logic surrounding the origin of natural pearls and how they are created within the pearl oysters and -of course- there was this previous “knowledge” about the origin of pearls: the mystical, magical, whimsical and musical “grain of sand theory“, which is really just another “pearl myth”.
Another Myth that Afflicts Humanity
It seems that regardless of the time period or place, this sand-grain-to-pearl myth has become very popular: it can be heard almost in any country and language. In my case my grandmother told me, when I was just a child, that pearls grew in an oyster as a result of an irritation caused by a grain of sand, so that there was no better choice for the little animal than to coat the painful and offensive particle with soft layers of nacre. I, of course, assimilated this important information and used it wherever there was an opportunity –and there were not many I must admit- until it came time to put this theory to the test.
Back in 1991, our select group of friends – including Mauricio Atl Tahuilan, Carlos Navarro Serment and Jesús Gutiérrez – had helped us to collect some 70 Pearl oysters to start off our studies on Pearl oyster reproduction and culture. Most of the oysters collected were “Black Lips” (Pinctada mazatlanica) and only a few specimens were “Rainbow Lips” (Pteria sterna), so we use some of these few animals for a very simple experiment: use sand to produce natural pearls. And the result was simply disappointing: we did not obtain a single Pearl. Zero. Zilch. Nothing. Nada. And there arose the question of why didn’t it work? Because we all know that a grain of sand will induce the production of a pearl…thus, a thousand grains of sand should be capable of allowing for the production of a thousand pearls and a million grains of sand …well, a million pearls!!! It was just so obvious and foolproof.
But it was not. As much sand as we used, we could not produce pearls. Not a single one. On the other hand, when we took a peek inside our oysters we noticed that the oysters were perfectly clean, without a trace of sand. We could not know -for real- what really happened in those days because we simply did not have the time to sit there -in front of an oyster- for some 24 straight hours. Can you imagine yourself sitting, just watching an animal that -for some people- is as interesting as a rock??? Therefore, we came up with conjectures and hypotheses, but we never quite knew what was truly happening; anyway, we were “satisfied” with our guesses. Many years have passed now since those days, and the technology to help us is now available –and is also inexpensive- to perform these small experiments…and, of course, for the “birth” of this Blog to have the motivation to write and document the experiments.
We used a small fish tank with clean seawater to introduce two “Rainbow Lipped oysters” into which we had –previously- introduce one and a half tablespoons of sand. We placed a small video camera to take a time-lapse video for the next 18 hours to record what happens to an oyster which has sand inside. The results did not astonish us, and lived up to our expectations.
After 3 hours in the tank, oysters would quickly open and close their valves, in a movement and launched a “cloud” of sand out of their bodies. This action removed a great proportion of sand from their bodies, but for the next 8 hours the oysters continued to, slowly, releases small “sand packets”. These “sand packets” consist of a sticky mucus that the oyster secretes in order to “bind” or adhere the sand, and thus it is more easy for them to remove the annoying particles. By next morning, the oysters were almost perfectly clean.
While – at first view – the oysters seemed to be clean from sand (we could see the most of the sand laying at the bottom of the tank) an oyster was sacrificed in order to inspect its body thoroughly, and we still managed to find a very small amount of sand inside. Under natural conditions, the oyster would have managed to remove all remaining sand in some additional hours, but here it was necessary to see the “mucus in action”: our video displays how the Oyster uses its mucus to catch some sand particles and helps to eliminate them.
Pearl oysters are perfectly adapted to their natural environment – the ocean – which has an inexhaustible source of sand. Because of this perfect adaptation, these lowly creatures can – very easily – remove every single annoying grain of sand from their bodies; thus, we can discard sand as being able to help produce natural pearls. In my opinion this is highly unlikely.
Thus, we hope that with the information generated by this test and the proofs on video we will help –once and for all- eliminate the false myth of the “grain of sand”. We hope that this myth will not become resurrected –a zombie of its former self- and come back to haunt us in the future… I swear that if I have to listen –once more- the question of “Is it not a grain of sand that makes the pearl?” something very, very bad, will happen …. I’m just joking: I have already been seared in the flesh –and mind and soul- with this question for years and years, so I am certain I will be able to sustain it longer (but try not to put me to the test, please).
A Blister Pearl!
While inspecting the oyster that was sacrificed for the “grain of sand experiment” I found a worm-like mud-blister pearl. Since our last blog-episode was about these pearls, and I already had the camera rigged it was just natural to make this information available for you all. So, I simply used a scalpel to break the mother-of-pearl layer on this “small tunnel” and found a small orange colored worm. It was clearly a drill-worm (genus Polydora). This discovery can be seen in the video as well.
This Blog will continue to have more information of interest to you, but probably this information will become a little more “spaced” in time, since our farming activities become intensified during the winter season and we usually spend more time at the farm than at the office (where I write the Blog).
So please do not despair, I promise more posts in the near future and do continue to visit our Blog and send your comments and suggestions.
We want to share with you the experience of having achieved the production of two unique -exceptional- pearl necklaces made from pearls produced at our farm in Bay Bacochibampo, Guaymas, Sonora, Mexico.
Both necklaces –one made of loose cultured pearls and the other from keshi pearls- are made using pearls produced by the native Pearl Oyster known locally as “Concha Nácar”, also known as the “Rainbow-lip Pearl Oyster” or by its scientific name Pteria sterna. If you have checked any world pearl production data, you will find that this is the only commercial farm in the world that employs a pearl oyster of the genus Pteria. So, all other pearl farms of the world use the so-called “mother-of-pearl oysters”, which belong to genus Pinctada. Thus, simply because of their rarity, a necklace made of pearls from the “Rainbow-lip Pearl Oyster” is really a very special piece, completely out of the ordinary.
Finally, we could talk with technicalities about the beauty of these pearls… that their Orient or overtones are exceptional, that their chroma or color saturation is simply out of the ordinary, that their natural luster is very high, but I think that anything that is said about these two necklaces simply PALES before what we can capture with our eyes… so we offer some beautiful pictures of these items, and you… you will be the one to decide whether they are beautiful and exceptional pieces.
“Bacochibampo” Pearl Necklace
Previously known as the “Bicentennial” necklace, but once it passed into the hands of its new owners it received it’s new – and very proper- name: Bacochibampo. This is a word which means “Bay of the Seven-headed Snake” and refers to an ancient Yaqui legend (of which we will talk in the future). It is also the name of the beautiful Bay in which we culture these pearls, thus we found its name to be more than appropriate.
This necklace consists of 41 cultured pearls, but if you recall (see this note) the necklace originally had 43 pearls, but the “missing pearls” were used to make a beautiful pair of earrings to go with this incredible piece.
Additionally, it gives great pleasure to say that this necklace found its residence in Mexico, adding to the number of Cortez pearl necklaces in Mexico to 4 (1 more needed to equal the number of necklaces found in other countries).
“Mares Lucis” Necklace
Whose name evokes the natural phosphorescence which we enjoy in a warm and dark summer night. This is our first great necklace but made with Keshi pearls. It was made at the request of a client in the US and it turned out to be a very pleasant task.
This necklace has 61 Keshi pearls harvested between the years 2007, 2008, 2009 and 2010. It is a graduated necklace, which means that the size of the pearls gradually decreases from the Central Pearl – of greater size – towards the rear. The sizes of the keshis vary between 3.9 and 6.7 (central) mm.
It was truly a privilege to work in the production of these unique pieces of jewelry. These are durable pieces that are meant to become true family heirlooms. For us the making of these necklaces meant:
1. That we took care of at least four different generations of pearl oysters (2005-2008), each one being looked after for a period of 4 years (this means 12 years of care, work and dedication).
2. The operation of thousands of pearl oysters, so that of these thousands only 1% would give us enough Gem quality pearls, in the sizes and shapes required for the production of these jewelry items.
3. A selection process that involves saving the best pearls from each year’s harvest, so we can have the pearls needed to produce one pearl necklace of this quality, every year.
So when they ask us if we cannot simply make another necklace like these we have to say: “We’d Wish!”… And hopefully next year we also have the opportunity and privilege to produce another necklace like these two… never identical, always unique, but of this same Quality.
The only that remains for me to do is to invite you to watch a short video with additional photos of the “Bacochibampo” pearl necklace…