Australian pearl breeding success offers hope for industry hit hard by coronavirus crisis


In a first for the pearling industry, two pearl farms on opposite sides of the country have found a silver lining during the coronavirus pandemic by successfully spawning two different species of pearl oysters at the same time.

The Kimberley’s Cygnet Bay pearl farm and New South Wales’ only cultured pearl farm at Broken Bay, teamed up almost two years ago in a joint venture called Pearls of Australia,

It was risky move to make in a competitive industry, typically shrouded in secrecy and trade secrets.

But it’s a collaboration which has held strong during times of crisis, resulting in this significant breeding event which has seen new Akoya and South Sea pearl varieties spawn simultaneously.

Third generation pearler James Brown said the milestone was important for the long-term future of the industry, particularly with the impacts of COVID-19 being felt both domestically and around the world.

“The COVID-19 crisis threatens the pearling industry, but Pearls of Australia chose to persevere with the important spawning process partly because of the previous crisis that crippled the Australian pearling industry in 2007,” Mr Brown said.

After the baby pearl oysters have been spawning in the hatchery for around 50-60 days they go out to the farm.(ABC Rural: Courtney Fowler)

“It was a biosecurity crisis just like this, only affecting our pearl oysters not people, and one our industry has never really recovered from.”

Mysterious disease plagues industry

The spawning at Cygnet Bay’s hatchery, is part of an ongoing long-term Cooperative Research Centre project with James Cook University, trying to breed more disease-resistant pearl oysters.

Man leans against a jetty post with water in the background
Cygnet Bay pearl farmer James Brown is the managing director of Pearls of Australia.(Supplied: Pearls of Australia)

The program started in response to a mystery disease which led to widespread Pinctada maxima shell mortality, wiping out much of the hatchery stock.

Ever since, the team at Cygnet Bay responded by trialling different ways of boosting production, including producing their own shell in a purpose-built hatchery.

Just after the mysterious disease struck in 2006, the Australian pearling industry was hit with reduced demand and lower wholesale prices sparked by the Global Financial Crisis.

This saw the industry dramatically shrink, from 16 independent pearl producers operating off the Kimberley coast, to the three commercial pearling companies which remain in WA today.

Coronavirus poses new threat to pearling

Despite all the challenges faced by pearl farmers over the past 15 years, nothing could have prepared them for the coronavirus crisis — which has seen revenue drop more than 90 per cent.

But despite the huge costs involved running a hatchery, Mr Brown said it was critical to keep looking to the future.

“You’ve got to have the ability to breed stock and to enhance stock resilience to these types of things as we move into more uncertain times.

“This activity has enabled us to redeploy staff from other parts of the business, such as retail and tourism that have been hard hit by the pandemic, as we keep positively looking towards the future.”

A close up of a handful of pearls
Cygnet Bay pearl farm celebrated a historic pearl harvest in 2018, when it harvested its first pearls from pearl shells bred in its hatchery.(ABC Rural: Courtney Fowler)

Collaboration provides hope for future

Mr Brown said although the tourism and retail arms of Pearls of Australia had been severely impacted, online sales were on the rise at both its farms.

“The bulk of them are people who’ve experienced one of our tours or pearling experiences in Western Australia or NSW,” he said.

“It’s shown the merit in trying to align this joint venture between the two farms; all we need is one to get back online and it’s really going to help the other.

“But it’s really difficult to develop a big online market without that real tangible experience that consumers really need.”

The silhouette of a man in a boat at sunset
It’s hoped the collaboration between Broken Bay and Cygnet Bay Pearl Farms will result in Australia’s first pearl trail once travel restrictions are lifted.(Supplied: Pearls of Australia)

It takes up to 6 years from spawning tiny little oysters in specialised hatcheries, to finally harvesting a pearl.

From there, it can be another whole year for the pearls to be sorted, graded, and set into jewellery designs ready for sale.

Mr Brown said although it would be up to seven years before they receive a return on investment on the recently spawned pearl oysters, the resulting gems would be worth the wait.



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