Tuesday, 11 March 2014

Oysters opening up opportunities for Fiji communities

Engagement in the pearl farming supply chain is bringing economic opportunities and social harmony to many island communities in Fiji. Dr Chris Barlow, ACIAR’s Fisheries research program manager, recently visited Fiji and describes how...

Pearl farming is often considered big business, a rich man's game. Not so in Fiji, where communities, particularly women's groups, are increasingly involved in various aspects of the complicated animal husbandry process that ultimately leads to pearls being sold in jewellery shops around the world.

Emele (front) and Kelera (back) at J Hunter Pearls,
processing Pteria penguin oysters that have previously
been seeded for mabé pearl production. Mabé pearls
are ideal for handicraft and jewellery production,
at which Fijian ladies are particularly adept.
The first step in pearl farming involves collecting spat (or baby oysters), either from natural spawning in the open ocean, or from adult oysters spawned in hatcheries. In Fiji, the great majority of spat is collected from the ocean using "long-line spat collectors". These are basically fibrous ropes, set in the ocean for several months, onto which free-floating larvae settle and grow to juvenile oysters.

The collection of spat is not difficult, but it does require maintenance of the lines and careful handling of the juvenile oysters. Skill is required to recognise the species being farmed and then to separate them from the many other species that settle on the ropes. 

Cyclone Tomas, which devastated Fiji in 2010, drastically reduced spat reserves for pearl farmers. It highlighted the necessity of expanding spat collection to widely separated areas of Fiji, to minimise the risk of failure due to storms or lack of baby oysters in some locations (or in fisheries terms, "recruitment failure"). Support available through an ACIAR-funded project, coupled with development grants from the Fijian Department of Fisheries, has enabled the expansion to happen in the last couple of years. Women's groups in particular took up the challenge, and the results have been a huge success for them and for the pearl industry. 

In Novunieva village, for example, the project provided an extra five long lines, which helped the community double their capture of spat. Their first harvest of 2,000 oysters sold for Fiji $4,000 (about AU$2,300). The villagers have built a shop from these proceeds, and aim to double their income next harvest and earn enough to buy a boat.

A villager from Vuadomo near Savusavu drilling a tiny hole in
the shell of juvenile oysters, so they can be attached to the long
lines for on-growing prior to seeding for pearl production.
Similarly in Nukavalabu, villagers sold their spat harvest to Fiji’s largest pearl company, J Hunter Pearls, for an impressive Fijian $4,200. Both these villages are remote from major settlements, and previously their only economic activity was selling fish - inherently difficult because of the distance to markets and the perishable product (especially so in a hot climate where no refrigeration is available). 

With their increased capacity and confidence, these and other communities are planning to continue spat collection as well as further their economic engagement in the industry. There is the possibility of on-growing the juvenile oysters to a size suitable for seeding for pearls. Such segmentation of the industry would benefit both spat collectors and pearl producers.

Other options are handicraft production using mother-of-pearl, and communities producing mabé pearls. Mabé pearls, or half-pearls, are grown from seed material attached to the inner side of the shells of adult oysters. This is a technologically less difficult procedure than producing round pearls, which involves a highly specialised process of seeding into the reproductive tissues of the adult oysters.
Emele, a pearl technician, shows fisheries consultant Barney
Smith how to implant a seed onto the shell of an adult
P. penguin oyster.  The seed will be overgrown by the shell,
so forming a mabé pearl.
The research has improved the pearl industry’s structure and sustainability, through involving many communities, spreading spat collection over diverse locations, and helping the industry to evolve into different products with multiple points of sale. 

Enhanced opportunities for communities to make money are the obvious livelihood benefit from the spat collection industry. But of equal or possibly more significance are the social and environmental benefits.

In the words of Mr Joji Vuakaca, Acting Principal Fisheries Officer in northern Fiji: "Communities working together to collect oyster spat has brought social cohesion and resulted in less community disputes. Moreover, the buoys marking the long lines have outlined unofficial marine protected areas, so increasing community involvement in caring for our marine environment."  

Rafts, like this one in Savusavu Bay, Fiji, are used to service the
spat collection long lines. The target species are removed from
the often heavily-fouled lines, and then reattached to clean lines
for on-growing. Care and skill are needed to ensure the oysters
are not physically damaged in the process.
The future holds promise for communities and pearl producers. Suresh Chandra, Acting Director of Fisheries in Fiji, said the focus for his government has shifted from the pearl industry as an export earner to community engagement in the industry because of the employment and income it generates. Accordingly the budget to assist more communities to enter the spat collection industry in northern Fiji was doubled in 2014, and the government is considering a nation-wide stimulus package for the industry.   

So the next time you go to buy a string of pearls, tell the jeweller you want "the colours of Fiji", and you will not only get a stunning product but also be contributing to community development in one of our important Pacific neighbours.

By Dr Chris Barlow, ACIAR’s Fisheries research program manager

More information:
The pearl oyster work in Fiji is part of a suite of pearl projects led by James Cook University that ACIAR is funding in the Pacific. More information can be found in Fisheries Profiles 2013 and on this website about the Pacific Agribusiness Research for Development Initiative.

PARDI news article on mother-of-pearl (MOP) handicraft and jewellery training in Fiji 

ACIAR blog on the mabé pearl industry Mabé, baby: Commemorating World Oceans Day  

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