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.
On December, 2010, we had an unexpected visitor to our farm: Richard D. Fisher, author of some of my favorite books about Mexico’s Copper Canyon and the Sea of Cortez, such as: “National Parks of Northwest Mexico”, and his latest “Copper Canyon: Chihuahua, Mexico”. Not only is the information on the books interesting and quite accurate, but they also have valuable historical, geological and ethnographic information and EXCELLENT PHOTOS. So, you may imagine my surprise when I met Richard in a Bus Tour group from our friends at “A Closer Look Tours”…I was honored to take the whole group to a complete tour of our pearl farm and –as usual- answer our visitor’s questions regarding the subject of pearls (one of these days I will write a Blog-post with the most common and interesting questions we’ve been asked), and guess who asked one of the “best questions” we’ve been asked over the years? Yes, it was Richard D. Fisher indeed, and the question was: “Did the Japanese really Poison the Sea of Cortez’s Pearl Beds in the 1940’s???”
Let us ponder on this story, so let us go back to the early years of the 20th Century…
From 1900 to 1920:
In those days, the Mexican Pearl Fisheries were still quite active throughout the Gulf of California, but mainly around the Southern tip of the Lower California peninsula (Baja California Sur), with La Paz acting as the main pearl trade-hub. Skin divers were still very much active in the fisheries, but after several hundreds of years of “pearling”, the pearl beds had become less plentiful, thus a new breed of diver was needed: the Helmeted Diver. And these were few in numbers but could work for hours and could go deeper than the typical skin diver, thus it was possible to find larger –older- oysters in deeper waters and fetch some larger pearls.
At the same moment, Dr. Gastón Vivés had his farm up and running quite successfully until 1914 when it was destroyed by the “Constitutionalist Army” during the Mexican Revolution. And from this moment on, the only pearls that could be obtained from these waters were the 100% natural pearls from wild-caught oysters (as opposed to the natural pearls from farm-raised oysters from Dr. Vivés’ black lip farm). And you may imagine that during a civil war people become even more impoverished and will have to resort to sacking their most valuable natural resources in order to obtain funds to sustain them…and this is what probably happened to the pearl beds in the area once the “Pearling Companies” (mostly Mexican, but some even from Great Britain and other parts of Europe) stopped their operations during and after the Revolution.
From 1921 to 1940:
This is a particularly bleak period for the pearl fisheries. The beds on the Baja California side had become commercially exhausted (meaning: no sense in fishing them anymore), but had time to “revive” on the mainland side (mainly in Sonora and Sinaloa). A couple of areas were particularly good “placeres” (name given to places were a given resource is abundant): the waters in front of Caborca and those around “Isla Tiburón”, were the fishery was conducted by the Seri Indian Nation. But in any case, the pearls were on the brink of becoming a legend…then, complete disaster struck the area: in 1939 a “mysterious disease” was traveling from the northern part of the Gulf of California, moving southwards and killing every single black lipped pearl oyster, leaving just empty shells which were identified by the local fishermen due to their silvery shine…
By 1940 the few remaining pearl beds in the Gulf had been decimated and the Cortez Pearl became the newest addition to the vast collection of Mexican fables, stories, myths and legends.
The Japanese Conspiracy Theory
In the late 1930’s most Mexican people were not really thinking of the future “space race” nor with “little green men” and had little interest in such “conspiracy theories”…but this does not mean that our fishermen lacked from imagination nor ideas. They actually began to wonder what some boats with “rising sun” flags and men from a different language and race were doing inside their Gulf…and these men seemed quite suspicious: they anchored here and dropped little devices into the water, retrieved them and then moved to another spot and repeated the process and, yet, they never seemed to fish anything! Also, instead of the friendly exchange of products (cigars, gas, bait, etc.) that they seemed to enjoy with other fishermen –regardless of nationality- these guys were overly serious and would not trade a thing!!! They must be up to some mischief indeed!!!
Back in 1939, many Mexican fishermen still remembered the importance of their pearl fisheries and considered the local pearl oysters as a useful food & shell resource that might reward them with a very valuable gem…if they were truly lucky. Some people had heard that the Japanese had begun producing cultured pearls and that they seemed to be unparalleled in their ability to produce them; still, many believed that cultured pearls were no match to the “real thing” (the natural pearl) and that Mexico would once again become a major league player in the World’s pearl markets.
So, add ingredient #1 (the presence of “tricksy” Japanese in the Gulf) and ingredient #2 (the Return of the Mexican Pearl) and you basically have created a plot, a Japanese conspiracy to POISON the Sea of Cortez and destroy any possible rival for the Japanese Cultured Pearl: the Japanese vessels were dropping poison into the pearl beds to kill their opponent before it had a chance to get back on its feet. And you wouldn’t believe how many people heard of this plot, and how many talk about it as a certifiable truth: people from Guaymas, from La Paz, from Hermosillo, from Mexico City…everyone!
Now, is there any truth in this plot? Could the Japanese have really killed off the pearl beds?
The Facts and the Myths
It is a fact that many Japanese vessels with Japanese men were in the Sea of Cortez in the late 1930’s, and they were definitively up to something, but it is highly unlikely they were sent on a mission to kill pearl oysters. Why? Because with the technology available in those days it is very unlikely they could have possessed a toxin or poison made specially to kill pearl oysters…any other poison must have killed other creatures as well: all sorts of clams, snails and maybe even fish that the fishermen would have noticed. But no it did not. Even today (2011) I am not aware of a toxin that will only kill pearl oysters…and I hope it is never invented!
So, what were the Japanese doing here if not killing oysters?!?! Well, check your timeline and you will notice that the “Pacific War” officially begun in December 17th, 1941 and Japan went into war with the United States of America, Mexico’s northern neighbor. So, could it be possible that the Japanese were taking depth measurements of areas in the Sea of Cortez??? Could they possibly have planned an attack into U.S. soil from Mexico in order to avoid the heavily defended California coast??? It does sound as a possibility…doesn’t it? Unfourtunately I don’t have any information on this subject…so let us hope that Wikileaks will produce these in a couple of years.
What caused the Mass Mortalities???
This is also an interesting subject. The “official” explanation given by the Mexican Government was that it had been caused by an unknown epidemic (epizootic disease), but they never gave any scientific proof to the fact or they just wanted an easy explanation to what seemed to be a lost cause, because from that moment on (1939) the Pearl Fishery was considered officially closed and a fishing ban was imposed on the capture or fishery of the Mexican Black Lipped Pearl Oyster (Pinctada mazatlanica).
But there were other interesting things happening at the same time, such as…the operation of the United States’ great “Hoover Dam”. Let me place a quote from Wikipedia’s here to further explain:
The changes in water use caused by Hoover Dam’s construction has had a large impact on the Colorado River Delta. The construction of the dam has been credited as causing the decline of this estuarine ecosystem. For six years, after the construction of the dam and while Lake Mead filled, virtually no water reached the mouth of the river. The delta’s estuary, which once had a freshwater-saltwater mixing zone stretching 40 miles (64 km) south of the river’s mouth, was turned into an inverse estuary where the level of salinity was higher close to the river’s mouth.
The Colorado River had experienced natural flooding before the construction of the Hoover Dam. The dam eliminated the natural flooding, which imperiled many species adapted to the flooding, including both plants and animals. The construction of the dam decimated the populations of native fish in the river downstream from the dam. Four species of fish native to the Colorado River, the Bonytail chub, Colorado pikeminnow, Humpback chub, and Razorback sucker, are currently listed as endangered.
If “Hoover Dam” began operating in 1936 and it is known that 6 years later (1942) there was no more fresh-water flowing unto the Gulf of California, then we can begin to imagine the environmental consequences. The “Colorado River” had its waters discharging into the Gulf for millions of years and then…kaput! No more water for you! So, what are the possible consequences: the impact was felt almost immediately on the Gulf’s northern region and its wetlands, but the effect had to creep down as the lack of freshwater made the Gulf of California “saltier” (the “average” salinity of the world’s ocean is 3.5%, with that of the Sea of Cortez being almost 3.6%) and a higher salinity level usually means less dissolved oxygen (which marine animals will use to breathe from the water). Besides this fact we can imagine that many other substances came with the river’s waters, including silt and many minerals…all these possibly very important to sustain a variety of marine plants and microscopic algae, creatures that are considered the basis of most marine ecosystems.
You may say “but the river’s water stopped flowing in 1942 and the oysters died in 1939!!!”, and yes…that is a fact, but the fact remains that there was less water available each year since the dam’s inauguration and by 1939 this was already causing havoc on our local ecosystems.
Have we finally pinpointed the truth to this dire plot or conspiracy theory? Not at all. I believe that there is still much to be done to reach this point, but a possibility would be that we could have indeed had a negative effect from “Hoover Dam” and this combined with the overfishing of the pearl beds and maybe we even had an epidemic or –just to make matters worse- an unknown environmental change. In any case: the Japanese are not to blame. They did not poison the Sea of Cortez to kill off a potential commercial threat.
I would also like to point out that I am in no way now blaming the American people for this disaster (we played our own part in this tragedy), and in those days (1930’s) few people knew or cared or understood how significant something like this truly was. Even now, few Nations are willing to consider Nature as a “User” of a given natural resource. In the meantime, we might speculate that our pearl oysters have had time to adapt to their “new” environment and –if given the opportunity- they will be able to repopulate our waters once more.