What is sustainability? A common definition used is “a development that meets the needs of the present without compromising the ability of future generations to meet their own needs”. Sustainability is built on three pillars: economic or profit, ecology or planet, and equity or people.
So what is sustainable pearl farming? Pearl farming needs to be profitable while employing practices which will benefit the workers and/or the local community, and which don’t damage the environment but rather improve it.
I think the profit section is self-explanatory, so I won’t dwell on it further for the purposes of this article. I would like to discuss the social and environmental benefits and threats in more detail.
Harvesting of Pearls: From Hunting to Farming
Up until culturing of pearls was introduced, the only way to find pearls was to open up thousands of pearl oysters or mussels in the hope of finding the shiny gem. Since not all shells produce pearls, thousands of shells were opened up unnecessarily, leading to the over-exploitation of mussel and oyster stocks. There used to be an abundance of pearls in the North American rivers, the Caribbean, and along the coasts of Central and South America. During the 19th century, these pearl supplies began to dry up due to overharvesting.
By the late 1800’s, researchers discovered a way to artificially culture pearls, which led to the dawn of pearl farming. The first person to successfully market cultured pearls was the Japanese, MikimotoKokichi. He used a technique developed by the English marine biologist, William Saville-Kent.
Today, almost all pearls sold are cultivated.
Social Benefits of Pearl Farming
Pearl farming can positively impact the local economy. It provides additional income opportunities on islands where there are no jobs other than fishing, which lowers the risk of overfishing. Pearl farming can coexist with the tourism and fisheries sectors. In 2000, pearl farming provided for 7,000 jobs in French Polynesia.
To be sustainable, pearl farmers need to take it a bit further. They need to make sure workers have favorable working conditions and are paid fair wages. They can also support the local economy by buying from local shops or improving infrastructure in the area.
How Pearl Farming Affects the Environment
Our coral reefs are in danger. Due to climate change, overfishing, pollution, and coral and coastal habitat destruction from unregulated coastal development, our ecosystems are fragile. Pearl farming may be the answer to saving our reefs. Pearl oysters are very sensitive organisms which need exceptional environmental conditions to be able to grow in and produce pearls. They need clean water full of healthy nutrients and shelter in which to grow. Pearl farmers who can preserve the environment will greatly help to improve our reefs.
Pearl farming can also improve biodiversity. Less fishing means a lower risk of overfishing, so more different species can survive. Oysters also provide a food source to fish, and small fish can hide between the oysters. Studies show that there are more fish species around a pearl farm.
Some pearl farmers breed their own oysters instead of collecting them from the wild. Certain pearl oysters are in danger of extinction, so breeding will give them a boost.
Creative Uses of Oyster Shells
Oyster shells frequently end up in landfill. There is a movement towards finding alternative uses for the shells, and pearl farmers who wish to be sustainable should participate in these practices when possible.
Oyster shells contain about 95% calcium carbonate. Pearl oysters can be used for many other things than just producing pearls. By diversifying the sources of revenue, the pearl farmer can get more income while minimizing waste:
- Oyster shells are ground into flour and used to fertilize gardens due to their high calcium content.
- In the United Arab Emirates, soils are enriched by dried oyster meat.
- Crushed oyster shells are used to cover garden paths, driveways, and patio floors.
- Ground oyster shells are fed to chickens for their calcium richness.
- Oyster shells can be used to control erosion; when added back to the reefs it acts as a natural breakwater barrier.
- Ground and purified shells are used for medicinal purposes, especially in Traditional Chinese Medicine. It can relieve osteoporosis, be used in bone replacement therapy, and is a source of calcium in dietary supplements and beauty products.
- Oyster shells can be used in water purification units – a single shell can filter between 11.5 and 25.9 liters of water per hour. An Australian study is investigating the possibility of removing pollutants from coastal waters by using pearl oysters.
- Shells are commonly used in ornaments such as light fixtures and photo frames.
- Shells also make pretty jewellery.
What Does the Future Hold?
It’s in the best interest of a pearl farmer to practice sustainable farming principles. Even if it’s just to ensure their own income and livelihood, every pearl farmer understands that their actions and the way they use or abuse the environment are important. A pearl farmer can only benefit from maintaining a thriving ecosystem.