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!
For us here in the Sonoran Desert it is a time in between seasons that most people know as “Fall” or “Autumn” but that for us desert-dwellers just means “Summer is Over”. Most people in the area just consider we have two yearly seasons: Summer and Not-Summer. Spring and Fall just last about two very pleasant weeks each, so I do have to agree with local wisdom on this one. Also gone are hurricanes, and I do want to take the time to express my heartfelt condolences to the people that have been affected by hurricane “Sandy” throughout its destructive path in the Gulf of Mexico and into the Eastern coast of the United States of America.
And now that Summer is over we start to experience a couple of environmental changes that make the Sea of Cortez such a unique ecosystem, and that for those that have not experienced this may come as a surprise: the Gulf of California is a Sub-Tropical sea. And this basically means our waters are placidly warm during summer (local high temperature in Bacochibampo bay is 32 Celsius/89 Fahrenheit) and somewhat cold during winter (local lows are 12 C/53 F), and thus our environment changes dramatically from Summer to Winter, the Gulf becomes a different entity because:
1) Summer months: water temperature rise and water becomes clearer, with a dramatic drop in turbidity, this is due to a lack of strong winds. Winds are also responsible for turbidity and for the mixing of bottom nutrients (upwelling), which in turns causes the great algal blooms that enhance this turbidity. This is a great time to SCUBA dive or snorkel in the area, since you don’t have to use a wetsuit and you can spend quality time in the water.
2) Winter months: the strong Northwestern winds begin in November, causing massive upwelling and algae blooms, the summer thermocline breaks and releases deep, colder water. Visibility decreases to the point where you cannot see your hand if you extend it away from your face. Adding to this is the lowered temperatures that make it hard to stay inside the water for periods over 20 minutes, unless you use a wetsuit. Red tides are also common at this time of the year.
And in the process of preparing for this dramatic environmental change we have just received two full sets of SCUBA diving gear that will allow us to continue working underwater during these months. Both of these have been secured with the help and support of the Sustainable Pearl fund, and will be used for our normal farming operations and in order to continue our environmental studies in Bacochibampo bay, helping us to monitor the local pearl oyster and sea-cucumber populations.
And this is important because most local fishermen are less capable of fishing during winter and we can actually see a more natural behavior in the population dynamics. During summer we may have a fishermen visiting and destroying an entire population, finishing up months of work.
I do have to mention that –at present time- it is impossible for us to prove that the work or research we do as part of our commercial operation is actually causing a measurable positive effect on a grand scale, we believe the efforts are indeed having a positive balance –based upon our experience- on a local scale: the local populations of Black lip oysters and Sea Cucumbers are dramatically higher than those of previous years, but this information has already been covered in this Blog so I won’t give you this information yet again.
What we are gaining is a better understanding on population dynamics: why are some years better for reproduction? why did we have a large die-off? did something eat the oysters or was it the environment? Many of these questions can sometimes find an answer when a photo or video (taken with the HD Pro Camera purchased for this purpose) shows you a large 20 arm “Sun-Starfish” on top of a cluster of pearl oysters, or when a fisherman is seen capturing some sea-cucumbers.
Without the diving gear and the camera we would never have the answers, which in turn lead to more questions that require answering. In all, this is a race against Time itself: since Humans have been given a limited time to live and we have a such a small time-frame in which we can actually do something to learn from Nature, specially in an Environment we were never intended to live in.
Hopefully, and with the continued support of the University of Vermont & the Sustainable Pearls project, we will be able to gather more information and help future generations in the quest for sustainability.
The project we initially proposed to evaluate our pearl farm’s sustainability had the following goals:
- The evaluation of the pearl farm’s environmental effect on the local populations of native pearl oysters (and other species) and recovered oyster beds as niche-ecosystem.
- Local fishermen will support the pearl farm as nursery (refuge) area of commercial fish species. This will aid in improving long-term viability of artisanal fishing livelihoods in the region.
- A communication campaign about the success of the project, in conservation and socioeconomic terms.
- The lessons learned from the ecological evaluation and monitoring, sustainable practices, pearl-oyster technology and any associated activity of the pearl farm will be provided for the development of criteria and standards to evaluate pearl farms. This will feed into a feasibility study for the certification of pearl farms.
- The pearl farm -and its perimeter- is under way to be legally considered a wild-life refuge zone where fishing is not allowed, only pearl culture would be allowed.
Unfortunately, we have been unable to secure the funds to carry this out this research that has several benefits to our local environment and to the fishing communities too. Oh well! It’s all about politics in the end and we are not –and will never become- politicians and this –of course- reflects on our inability to secure support. I guess we will just continue to do things our way for the years ahead…which is not a problem but things just move at such a slow rate.
My next entry will be about the “Bazar Gilberto” event we had in Mexico City, and the new jewelry styles that will be available from the “Sea of Cortez Pearl” jewelry store. See you soon!
It has taken some time to sort out a couple of things out all the things that constantly happen around us: pearl harvests, VIP visitors, giant natural pearls & broken hard-drives. But there are those little “pet projects” that you can never dedicate enough time but that are what add zest to your life, and one of these little projects is the “Sustainable Farming Project” that we began some 20 years ago.
Let me tell you a bit about this “idea” we had back then: we wanted to have a “pearl farm” but we would also grow many commercial varieties of invertebrates, mainly to promote their growth and help their populations thrive. That was the original dream in 1994, and now in 2012 we have been able to continue with these efforts, thanks to to combined help from local environmental NGO COBI and the “Sustainable Pearls” project that has been funded by Tiffany & Co. Foundation and the University of Vermont.
But, before I start by describing the environmental situation in the area around our pearl farm in the mid 1990’s and the stark contrast we have today, allow me to first give proper thanks to the people that have helped us recently in this project:
- Dr. Jorge Torre of COBI: who has sent his team of specialized divers to conduct a full fledged environmental study of the impact of our pearl farm in Bacochibampo Bay. A survey of several areas of the bay has been done, and the data is presently under analysis.
- Drs. Saleem Ali & Laurent Cartier: for their invaluable help in promoting our “pet project” as part of the “Sustainable Pearls” project and granting us the needed resources to help us share our work with the world: the Scuba diving gear and the special diving camera that we are now using to take photos and videos of pearl beds, the local marine life and our farming activities.
- Drs. Miguel Ángel Cisneros, Jaqueline García and Marco Linné for additional support regarding analysis and policies.
To all of you: my sincerest appreciation for the help you have granted to continue this labor of love.
Of the very first things we did in the 1991-1993 research phase was to conduct a survey of the populations of native species of bivalves (the main emphasis on pearl oysters of course). What we saw was a sad reality: most commercial species of shellfish had been severely depleted, mainly due to overfishing: pen shells, scallops & clams, all suffered a similar fate. Our results for this early period showed a small population of pearl oysters in Bacochibampo Bay:
- Some 88 Black-Lips (Pinctada mazatlanica), mostly large individuals (10-18 cm), mostly isolated and some in small groups (2-5), mainly found in the small islands and deep, isolated reefs.
- Very few Rainbow Lips (Pteria sterna), some 54 specimens, mostly small (4-8 cm), usually found in small groups on fan corals found in deeper waters.
At the same time we were also conducting “spat collecting” trials (in case you don’t know about this subject, you can read about the process here), in order to find out the correct season for the different species of bivalves, and back in 1991/1992 –not knowing any better- we believed we had good results:
- Black-Lip Average Spat per Collector: only 2 spats per collector.
- Rainbow-Lips Average Spat per Collector: 6 spats per collector.
But, as the amount of oysters growing in our protected cages increased, so did their fertilization rates, something that researcher Neil Anthony Sims clearly stated as a benefit of pearl farming:
“The pearl farms themselves then become agents of repopulation. Where once the oysters were isolated on the reefs, perhaps hundreds of meters from their nearest neighbor, a farm holds large numbers of mature, well-tended oysters in close proximity. This increases reproductive efficiency by better synchronization of spawning epidemics, and maximizing the fertilization rates of eggs, resulting ultimately in more recruitment.” (Excerpt taken from: SPC Pearl Oyster Information Bulletin #10, 1997, “Setting the Record Straight”)
As the amount of native pearl oysters increased in our pilot-culture farm, the amount of available spat started increasing, sometimes quite dramatically:
- Black-Lip Average Spat per Collector in 1997: 35 spats (an increase of 1,750%)
- Rainbow-Lips Average Spat per Collector in 1994: 220 spats (an increase of 3,666%)
Of course, there are many other factors involved in these figures, but it does give you an idea in the validity of Neil Sims opinion on pearl farming (and ours as well, since we found out about this as well, and we presented the information in the “Pearls ‘94” convention in Honolulu, Hawaii, under the name of “Perpsectives and opportunities for pearl oyster culture development on the coast of Sonora, Gulf of California, Mexico”).
This year we were able of catching an average of 10,000 Rainbow-Lip spats per collector, which is an increase of 4,545% over the 1994 figure. Ultimately: what does all of this mean for us? It means it is easier for us to gather the necessary spat for the needs of our farm (80,000 spats yearly), but it also means there is a special gift to the local environment.
Some people may just say: “Wow! All that larva in the water…it will simply die!”, because studies have found that out of every 1 million fertilized eggs only 1 to 10 (not thousands, nor hundreds: it is just one digit here) will actually survive to adulthood. And I do have to agree with them, but the effect has been blown out of proportion so far because we are clearly seeing a recovery of the local pearl beds.
The Environmental Benefits
Altough at present we have not been able to review COBI’s population survey data yet, we have some information available to talk about the positive effect of our pearl farm in the area:
1) The Black Lip Pearl Oyster population within the farm’s sphere of influence has increased: when in the early 1990’s we would find few, isolated, large (old) black-lips, now we find thousands (my estimates are in the vicinity of 5 thousand) of these animals living in tight clusters (from 3 to 20 specimens) on rocks and hard corals, and also on the sandy bottom. The fantastic thing is that we don’t really grow this species commercially, but we have mantained a small stock (usually between 100 to 300) for years just for their “breeding value”, and we enforce a no-fishing ban within our sphere of influence. The population increase since the early 1990’s to 2012 would be of 100,000%, so I guess this is quite good.
2) The Rainbow Lip Pearl Oyster population has not been analyzed yet, but thanks to information shared by Dr. Jorge Torre of COBI and Dr. Miguel Angel Cisneros of CRIP-Guaymas (local Fisheries office), we have been able to glimpse the magnitude of change possible due to our efforts: a large Pteria sterna pearl bed was found a small distance from our location, containing millions of individuals. We cannot share more information since I have not been granted the right (for very good reasons), but the bed is said to measure some 40 miles in lenght…something that has not been seen in the Sea of Cortez since hundreds of years ago, when the Spaniard explorers described similar beds.
Now, I do have to state that we do not have any clear evidence that our farm is responsible for this giant pearl bed, because the only way to do so would be to place genetic tracers on our farm’s oysters and then see where their offspring end up, but there has never been any funding for such a study. Perhaps now we will be able to finally find some support for this project and hopefully claim ourselves as guilty of this shameful effort. By the way: hundreds of fishermen and their families are reaping the benefits of fishing this bed for its meat and pearls.
3) Local Fishes & Invertebrates: Yes, this kind of brings us back to the entry about the Sea Cucumbers I published some months ago, but its effects are even more profound to the local economy, since the pearl farm is basically one big reef: the cages are colonized by many species of algae and then attract all sorts of little invertebrates (worms & crustaceans) that in turn attract many species of fishes, and their offspring (the little frylings) can thrive in the farm and even seek protection within our cages until they grow larger.
And of course: we don’t fish these out and they are free to go whenever they please, thus our farm is a great fish breeding station for our community, a value that we cannot begin to evaluate (perhaps in the future, if funding becomes available). Also consider: we only use 1% of Bacochibampo bay’s surface area, yet you see dozens of fishermen always trying to fish within our area…something that is both infuriating and saddening, because we may loose all of our protected stocks (as it happened last year when a sea cucumber poacher took thousands of these in a day). Yet, we have started again and I’m happy to say our new batch of warty looking friends is doing quite well!
You can watch a 5 minute video I recently took of the fish life in our farm, and if you have fished here in the Gulf of California you will notice some valuable species such as the Yellow Snapper (Lutjanus argentiventris) and the Triggerfish (Balistes polylepis), which are very much in demand by both sports fishers and local fishermen. The farm is teeming with Life!
Fair Trade Pearls
Back in the year 2000, when we were finally growing our cultured pearls commercially, we had the dream of becoming a “major player” in the pearl industry but we also wanted to be different from many of the other players in the industry, specially regarding the environmental effect of the farm, the quality of our pearls and the way we would be involved with our community. In those days we had not yet heard about the Fair Trade Movement, nor of the Fair Trade Gems initiative, but when Enrique and Manuel met with Eric Braunwert back in 2003 we just knew we were all in this idea toghether. It just felt natural for us to support –and be supported- by this cause.
In the end, it is often said, that we all just “reap what we sow”…but since we do not reap the results of this pet project (since we don’t fish for our benefit, we don’t harvest natural pearls for ourselves and we don’t obtain public nor private subsidies or grants)…then I guess this is all about our Tikkum Olam: the search for a better world.
I hope we will be able to continue with our efforts and that more people will come to our aid as well, we are too few and the task seems enormous. But with your help and faith, it will be possible. Thank you all for your support.
“A Tiger loose on the Farm”
And on this new post we continue with the description of Jesus “El Tigre” Mendoza’s activities at our Pearl Farm:
All my life I have lived in Guaymas, yet I did not know that there was a place where animals were cultivated for the production of pearls. Of course I knew about edible oyster and shrimp farms, but I never imagined that we had a pearl farm, right here in Guaymas! but we had all heard the faint rumors. It was not until November 2010, when –while attending ITSON- I had a course named “Natural and Cultural Attractions”, the course’s professor being one of the Pearl Farm’s owners. Our new teacher -Douglas McLaurin Moreno- took the whole group for a field trip to this “farm” and was here that I learned how to they raised the “pearl oysters” for the production of cultured pearls.
It was a great experience to learn about pearl farming. And then, after almost two years of having visited the site, I finally had the opportunity to “work” here doing my “professional stays” at the pearl farm; in January of this year I became a key part of several research projects for the company, including one that aims to monitor the many marine species that grow alongside the oysters in the pearl culturing cages.
From that moment I began to understand the great importance of having a pearl farm in Guaymas, and later I began to think that this benefit is not solely for Guaymas, but for the entire Sea of Cortez. When we take the culture cages from out of the sea, to evaluate the growth of the “Rainbow Lip Oysters” (also known as Pteria sterna) there is always a great host of marine fauna alongside the farm-raised mollusks; it was impressive to see that in a such a small space –that of the cage- you can find such a great variety of animal species, in what appears to be complete harmony.
So I was tasked to keep track of all these species, keeping track of all vertebrate (fish) and invertebrate fauna: the different species found as well as their number, but being specially on the lookout for these 3 main species: the “Panamic Black Lip Pearl Oyster” (Pinctada mazatlanica), the “Pen Shells” (Atrina maura, Pinna rugosa) and the “Sea cucumbers” (holothurians). I still monitored dozens of other species such as: crustaceans (Spiny Lobsters, pistol shrimps, banded ghost shrimps -Lysmata californica- and swimming crabs), several fishes (Angel fishes, Soap-fishes, Groupers, Snappers, Catfishes, Eels & Blennies) bivalves (mussels, scallops, Blood Cockles, Chocolate clams) and many others.
It was very interesting to notice how many of these species grow, some even attaining large dimensions -as in the case of the Sea Cucumbers- of up to 20 centimeters (7.8 inches) in length. Holothurians are animals commonly known as “sea cucumbers”, due to their elongated bodies with a shape similar to that of that vegetable. They are related to starfish and sea urchins (Echinoderms).
Holothurians, have a very important biological function in coastal areas: they clean the seabed of those accumulated organic wastes. They belong to a group of animals referred to as bottom-feeders: they just basically eat the organic material found within the sediment (sand), and what they excrete is just clean sand, without any organic matter. And here why these animals have such a great biological importance: if a bay has an adequate amount of sea cucumbers, its sand will remain cleaner and we will be able to enjoy white sand, not the “dark and sticky” sand we sometimes find in some areas. This is what I was told here at the farm: that these animals are providing us all of with this free environmental service.
Just in the month of January, this pearl farm was able of “rescuing” (meaning: they were returned to their natural environment) some 2,262 sea cucumbers, which averaged 11 cm (4.3 inches) in length; if these creatures had been returned to their environment while still young they would have had become food for predators since their defense mechanism is not yet sufficiently developed (when a sea cucumber is attacked, it can expel its viscera (guts) which are sticky and mildly-toxic, but the sea cucumber does not die because it can regenerate its guts in a few days and just like that), but by growing them in a farm they will be able to escape their natural predators.
Although in Mexico Sea Cucumbers are not considered valuable (because people here do not eat them nor can they be used for souvenirs), in many Asian countries (such as China, Japan and Korea) they are used in their cuisine and they are also considered to be an aphrodisiac. Such is their demand in Asia that they have been fished out of our waters, these animals no longer doing their environmental service for us.
So this is where I began to understand the other great benefit of this pearl farm: not only are its benefits coming directly from the jobs that come with the production of the pearls, but the farm is also helping towards the reproduction and growth of other wildlife fauna, since the aquaculture cages offer protection and security to many species -providing refuge from predators- until they can return to the sea to continue their natural processes. The farm offers a free environmental service as well.
Therefore, this company does not just favouring the recovery of some animal species -such as with sea cucumbers- but it is also benefiting the local fishing industry; from my perspective I believe that the farm protects many species of fish that are commercially caught for human consumption or fish that become food for these and that are later released back into the Bay. This seems to be a true sustainable industry, not only for Guaymas but for the entire Gulf of California: an industry that does not lead to the extermination of marine life and where it will become protected for all future generations.
To finalize this article: staying in a pearl farm is for nature lovers, because you are next to the sea in a place where can protect marine species, ensuring a future for all. And this is something that I have learned while working at the “Sea of Cortez Pearl” farm in Guaymas.
And now we have come to the end of Jesus’ personal contribution to our Blog. I thank him for giving us his unique perspective. In future posts we will –once more- continue with the “El Mechudo” saga and more Mabe Pearl production, so keep visiting and do take the time to let me know your thoughts.
After a short absence due to our many obligations at the pearl farm and also at the Gem Show in Tucson, Arizona, we continue to share our experiences in the pearl production. And for us, an important part of our aquaculture process is based on Environmental Sustainability: the production of pearls with full-respect for Bacochibampo Bay’s ecosystems.
An It is because of this reason that -through the years- we have carried out an active process of re-stocking of several native species, whose populations have become endangered because of the fishing activities carried out by the locals. Among these species we can list the following: the “Black-lip pearl oyster”, the “Lion’s Paw Scallop”, the “Pen Shells” and the “Sea Cucumbers”.
However, our efforts have not been effectively transmitted to the general public because we basically have a one-man PR department (me!) and that I do spend most of my time working (as expected!) either in the production of pearl oysters and their pearls OR in the process of selling pearls and pearl jewelry; and the little time left from these occupations does not allow us to carry out an effective social communication effort although we do have our website up-&-running, as well as this blog (in two languages), a Facebook page and a Tweeter account.
But this year we have the fortune of having two young, bright and hardworking students helping us out at the farm. These students of the Guaymas Campus of ITSON (a local Public University) are about to graduate as Bachelor’s in Tourism. Thanks to an academic program of this important local institution, this young pair will help us in two very important areas: Sales and Research.
In the Sales area we have the invaluable assistance of Miss Veronica Machado and in the production area we have the strong support of Jesus Antonio Mendoza. Jesus Antonio -known by his nickname “El Tigre”- is helping in data collection and analyzing the important biological information for several small projects, including the “Sea Cucumbers Project” and the bio-cleaning of pearl-cages.
I have asked Jesus “El Tigre” Mendoza to write a bit about his experiences of working in our pearl farm, as their training focuses mainly on tourism and he has a very different way of viewing our pearl farming activities: this is an entirely “alien concept”. And this is his first contribution to the Blogosphere. I hope you will be able to see things through the eyes of this young man:
From a very young age I have had great admiration and respect for nature, especially for all the natural resources that exist in the region where I live; I have always admired the contrasting combination found between the mountains, the desert and the sea. Despite of living in a place where the climate is extreme and where there is almost no rain, I’m always surprised how plants and animals have adapting to survive in these arid lands, and how our people have learned to survive.
I live in a very popular city located in northwestern Mexico: the famous port of Guaymas, located in the state of Sonora, which is situated on the shores of the Sea of Cortez (aka Gulf of California). This port’s economy is largely dependent on fishing, although in recent years has all fisheries have declined, due to over-exploitation, and thus this activity -in turn- came to be partially replaced by the maquiladora industry, but these do not provide the same quality of life –as fishing did- to our community.
It is until now that I have come to understand the great importance of the Sea of Cortez, not only for Guaymas but for the whole world: this sea has a unique biodiversity of marine species, all which are part of a large marine ecosystem on which we all depend for our survival. Species such as the vaquita marina, and the native species that are found at the pearl farm, such as the sea cucumbers, the many starfishes, the Cortez Angelfish, among others are just a part of a long list of flora and fauna that live in our waters.
The Gulf of California is also breeding place for beauty and rarity, the home of a Gem which is produced by a rarely-known pearl oyster species: the “Rainbow Lip Oyster”, an animal that produces pearls of intense and diverse colors: red, purple, blue, green and rainbow-like. Here at the farm they become high-end jewelry items, used primarily by women that visit this farm.
Soon –and thanks to the help of Veronica & Jesus- we will be finalizing details of our next “El Mechudo” video and we will have additional presentations from Jesus and Veronica.
Oh yes! There is simply no easy way to avoid doing what everyone else is doing these days…every “Marketing Guru” out there says you have got to have a Facebook page for your company/brand and everyone needs a Twitter account. OK then…we’ve done it and have both.
If you feel the urge to follow us on Twitter then, just look for us as @CortezPearls. If you feel more like interacting with us using Facebook then head for our “Cortez Pearls” page (and while there, please do “Like” our page).
So, this is an open invitation to the over 1,200 monthly visitors of this unique Blog…do come in and join us and find out what this “social media rage” is all about.
Both accounts will be BILINGUAL (English & Spanish) in order to avoid the hassles of having way too many accounts to manage…my primary job is still PEARL FARMING and for the likes of us farmers this does take some of our time away from our “wet & salty” obligations.
Anyway, we hope you enjoy this new channel of communication and that you will use it to your advantage. Hope to “see” you there soon!
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.
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?!?!?
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.
And now we will continue with last month’s story about our visit to ruins of the World’s first pearl farm and we will go and revisit each area step by step.
Our boat came to rest on the beach, but not a sandy beach but more of a rocky beach full of large oval-shaped water tumbled rocks that make walking quite difficult. Any of you that have visited the local beaches of “Las Saladitas” and “Piedras Pintas” in Guaymas will understand what I mean: the rocks just slide from under your feet and may make you fall. Our boat remained in the water, in an area that once had some concrete and rock slabs that were used as a ramp for loading and unloading boats and other aquaculture equipment.
And it is quite interesting to notice that even tough the ramps are not there anymore (maybe underneath many kilos of rocks there could be something) -or they are simply not noticeable- you can still find indications of their whereabouts thanks to the useful tool known as “Google Earth”. Yes, if you examine the satellite images from Ensenada de San Gabriel you can see some areas -inside the ocean- where some lines are perpendicular to the coastline: one of these being the ramps -they had a lot of use, because they were needed for the farm’s aquaculture operations and to provide food and water to the thousand employees they had on this desolate island.
Another thing of interest is that, after almost a Century of abandonment and being exposed to countless hurricanes, you can clearly what is left of masonry work and even of the more modest wooden buildings.
Walking to our right (to the west of our landing site), at about some 100 meters from the coastline we found a heavily impacted land area: scarce vegetation, some “Chivato” bushes (Calliandra sp) and “Choya Cactii” (Opuntia sp), a marked difference with the typical Sonoran desert vegetation found in the surrounding area: large columnar cactii -mainly Organ-Pipe catus and Barrel Cactus- and spiny shrubbery. Clearly, this land was compacted for use as sheds, shaded storage area and maybe even for barracks for the farm’s workers.
This small video (part 1) of our visit to the farm may give you better insight:
For the most part, the storage sheds must have been built with commercial wood (which we found in a very deteriorated state, possibly cedar wood) with the roofs being built with palm fronds and/or wood planks. What was stored under these? You can imagine that many were used to house your average tools, such as axes, saws, mallets, etc., one of them must have been a small forge to produce nails and work on chains and cages, some used for living quarters and cooking, but what was the purpose of this unique farm? To produce a valuable commodity: mother-of-pearl shell (MOP). We have fist hand information (from writings by Dr. Vivés himself) that shed some light on this beautiful natural product (plastic became an alternative for MOP shell, thus many nacre/MOP producing regions closed-down).
The MOP produced at this farm came from the farm-raised Black-Lipped Pearl Oysters (Pinctada mazatlanica). The company had 4 different grades (or qualities) for MOP shell. This is the information they provided at the end of the Mexican Revolution as to the value for MOP at the International markets:
- “Extra” Grade: made up of large shell (over 15 cm in diameter), with very regular/uniform shapes, without spotting nor drill-worm holes.Valued at $1,000 USD per metric ton.
- “First” Grade: shells with sizes between 9 to 14 cm, without spotting nor holes. Valued at $400 USD/ton.
- “Second” Grade: mainly small shells (sizes between 7 to 9 cm) and “clean” (no spots nor holes), but also mixed in with larger shells (9-15 cm) but with defects and imperfections. Valued at $200 USD/ton.
- “Third” Grade: Mainly consisting of broken shells or with shells with considerable damage (spots & holes) in at least 50% of its surface. Valued at less than $100 USD/ton.
We did find evidence of MOP shell mounds throughout the entire area. Most of the shells having suffered from weathering effects. It is hard to say if these shells are all that was left behind after the destruction of the pearl farm in 1914, or if these are more “recent” shells (no older than 30 years) left behind by fishermen that were illegally fishing them for their pearls. The shells are brittle, have a warm coppery color and most of their protein coating (periostracum) has dissapeared…but are still beautiful and shinny.
MOP shell had a very important economic value before the use of plastic and was used intensively for the manufacture of buttons, jewelry boxes, knife/firearm handles, jewelry (cameos), chess-sets and even for traditional Asian medicine. Several places flourished economically due to this demand: Broome in Australia (using the large Silver Lip Oyster or Pinctada maxima), Muscatine in the United States of America (using many species of pearly mussels) and -of course- La Paz, Mexico.
As a matter of fact, the main economic source for the farm was the production of MOP shell…the pearls were a much welcomed by product: a gift from God or Nature. In those days only natural pearls existed (cultured pearls were in a research stage in Australia and Japan). Some sources state that the quantity of MOP shell that was exported from the Gulf of California (mind you: these figures do not include the shell that remained in Mexico) between the period comprised by the years 1580 and 1857 was of 95,000 metric tons, roughly converted to 277 tons per year. If we converted this volume to monetary value -using a 3rd grade figure- we are talking about $28,000 USD of 1910 (we would have to convert this figure to its present economic value) which is not bad for those days: $101 USD per ton or…
|$2,350.00||using the Consumer Price Index|
|$1,770.00||using the GDP deflator|
|$10,100.00||using the unskilled wage|
|$15,100.00||using the Production Worker Compensation|
|$12,900.00||using the nominal GDP per capita|
|$43,100.00||using the relative share of GDP|
I would personally stick with the “Unskilled wage” indicator… but would really appreciate hearing from others and see if we can come up with a better figure or even for a “real market price” for MOP these days.
Let us try some math here again. This pearl farm (CCCyP ) is said to have had between 8 to 10 million black-lip oysters under culture conditions. Documents from the farm and Dr. Gastón Vivés state that the annual harvest consisted of some 5 million oysters. An average 4 year-old shell measures some 12 cm in diameter and weighs 10 grams and each organism has two of these (=20 grams of MOP per oyster), thus if we extrapolate we will have 200 kilos per thousand oysters, so 1 million oysters might have produced 200,000 kilos and multiplied by 5 we get 1,000 tons of MOP per year. Of course, this information is not accurate because we lack information on the percentage of shell that was discarded due to low-quality (and some other figures that would help have a better price estimate, such as the percentage of their sizes and their grades) but what I want you to NOTICE is how this one farm could have been able to supply the entire export of MOP shell and the domestic market as well, WITHOUT fishing out the local pearl beds.
A pearl farm can indeed have a positive impact on the local environment if managed in a sustainable manner.