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Retail and tourism staff have been redeployed to assist in Pearls of Australia's hatcheries. Pictured: An Australian Akoya pearl from Pearls of Australia's Broken Bay farm in New South Wales.
Retail and tourism staff have been redeployed to assist in Pearls of Australia's hatcheries. Pictured: An Australian Akoya pearl from Pearls of Australia's Broken Bay farm in New South Wales.

Pearls of Australia adapts to crisis; successfully spawns two oyster species

Due to an unprecedented fall in revenue due to the COVID-19 pandemic, Pearls of Australia – which operates pearl hatcheries in Western Australia and New South Wales – has re-invested resources into its oyster breeding program.

Pearls of Australia owns the Cygnet Bay Pearl Farm on the Dampier Peninsula and Broken Bay Pearl Farm, two hours north of Sydney. It not only harvests pearls at the farms, but also retails a range of pearl jewellery and holds ‘shellar door’ tours for the public.

However, its retail and tourism businesses have been severely impacted by the COVID-19 crisis, with managing director James Brown saying, “We have lost over 90 per cent of our revenue in the last few months due to this pandemic.”

James Brown, Pearls of Australia
James Brown, Pearls of Australia
"It highlights how huge the risk is for our industry. If we had not undertaken the spawning because of COVID-19... [We would have] no pearls to harvest in 2025"
James Brown, Pearls of Australia

“The usual risk to hatchery operations at this time of year is cyclones, but this year it was the coronavirus. Hatcheries cost thousands of dollars to run and facing no income for 2020 we had to make the decision if we were going to cease operation or continue to produce millions of [oyster] babies,” he added.

Instead of closing, Pearls of Australia redeployed 10 retail and tourism staff to assist in oyster spawning at both the Cygnet Bay and Broken Bay hatcheries.

"We have retained 100 per cent of our core staff, helped by our ability to move them around to different parts of the business, and around 96 per cent of our overall staff taking into account our seasonal tourism workers who would have been returning this time of year," Brown told Jeweller.

The business' breeding program represents a significant investment in the future of the Australian pearling industry.

“By continuing this breeding program, we are demonstrating confidence in the longevity of our industry, as the results of these pearls won’t really show commercial value for another five to 10 years,” Brown explained.

Pearls of Australia farms the giant Pinctada maxima oysters – which produce Australian South Sea pearls – in Western Australia, and Pinctada fucata, which produce Australian Akoya pearls, in New South Wales.

The results have so far been promising, with Brown revealing, “Timing is everything when it comes to spawning oysters; similar to coral, the moon and the seasons must align, and February and March full moons are the optimum times of the year.

“The fact that the two different pearl oyster species on either side of the country managed to spawn at the same time is a truly exciting and magical event.”

He added, “It highlights how huge the risk is for our industry. If we had not undertaken the spawning because of COVID-19, no matter what the outcome, we wouldn’t have a pool of shell to seed in 2023 and no pearls to harvest in 2025.”

In 2007, the Australian pearling industry was crippled by oyster oedema disease and, Brown says, “has never really recovered”.

"We still don’t entirely know what is causing the problems, so it is very hard to adapt our processes to avoid a similar scenario. The symptoms vary depending on the pearl farm site, which has led to most of the pearl farms shutting down," he told Jeweller

"We have conducted extensive research efforts jointly with state and federal agencies to try and identify the causative agent [of the disease]... [However] there has been no whole-of industry response to try and improve productivity."

Indeed, the pearl industry is facing depleted supplies internationally, with pearl production declining 60 per cent between 2009 and 2019 according to research by the South China Sea Fisheries Research Institute (SCSFRI) and Australia’s University of the Sunshine Coast (USC).

"A major part of the research we are currently involved with is focused on improving resilience and productivity in our oysters using breeding programs," Brown said, adding that Pearls of Australia hopes to have “a few thousand” of the spawned oysters ready for pearl seeding in three years, after which it will take a further two years for gem-quality pearls to be harvested.

Pearls of Australia is also streaming live online pearl harvesting from its Broken Bay farm on Thursday mornings. Details of the 'Virtual Pearl Harvest' can be found at the Broken Bay Pearls Facebook page.

 

More reading:
Waves of change: Diving into the pearl sector
Organic Gems Part II: Pearls
Pearls: New technologies and techniques reinvent a classic
 











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