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Pearls in Danger

Pearls in DangerIn February 2007, the United Nations Intergovernmental Panel on Climate Change released a report that confirmed what most people intimately connected with the environment already knew — the planet is getting warmer, and its oceans are changing as a result.

Following on in March , the pearl industry responded by drawing up a resolution during the annual World Jewellery Confederation (CIBJO) conference supporting the Kyoto Protocol. The Kyoto Protocol is thus far the world’s most important treaty addressing global warming; its goal is to reduce the carbon emissions thought to be contributing to the warming trend.

Oysters, the producers of pearls but natural and cultivated, are particularly susceptible to warmer ocean currents.

“Oysters are very much the canaries of the ocean system,” says Joseph Taylor, manager of Atlas South Sea Pearls in Indonesia. “The first animals to be affected by changes in pollutants or climates are bivalves, because they can’t move [away] and they’re cold blooded.”

Warmer waters and changes in weather patterns can all affect pearl farms, both fresh as well as salt water based. Oysters are used to a certain climate and any change could be detrimental to pearl production.

“In the past, pearling companies haven’t had to invest much into research and development,” says Dean Jerry, senior lecturer and the leader of the Aquaculture Genetics Program at James Cook University’s School of Marine and Tropical Biology in Townsville, Australia. “The solution [to most problems] was just to put more oysters in the water.”

A typical example is portrayed in china last year. Between August 9th and 13th, two tropical storms devastated the southeastern Akoya pearl farm areas killing, by an agreed estimate, an enormous 100 million nucleated oysters. The “great die-off,” as Peter Bazar of Imperial-Deltah in East Providence, Rhode Island, calls it, was caused when flood rains dropped the salinity of the ocean waters to a point where oysters could not survive.

Despite buffeting winds and lashing tides, farmers tried to harvest dead oysters and retrieve premature pearls. But the damage was done. According to Bazar, “There will be a two-year interruption of Chinese Akoya pearls.” Since many, if not most, Chinese Akoya pearls are routed through Japan, this is grim news for the entire Akoya market. “Thankfully,” Bazar adds, “Chinese freshwater pearls will offset some of the shortage.”

“I think [climate change] is almost unavoidable now. It’s the severity we don’t understand,” says Taylor. “What we do know is when we have an obvious climactic event, such as El Niño, it does have an effect on survival. So as we move into a changing climate, and we see changes in temperatures, that will affect things.”

“The only thing we can do is to assist in looking after the environment, and to remind people that the beautiful product they’re wearing is something they can only have if the environment is protected,” he concludes. “We do have a role in helping our consumers understand that our object will only exist while the ocean and the general environment is in good health.”

The research is still in the early stages, and data collected has yet to be analyzed to determine if some oyster “families” survive environmental stresses better than others. But Jerry is betting the answer will be yes. “I think there will be oysters which are better adapted to [changing] conditions and will survive and grow, while other families will be exterminated. Having that information will allow us to include it as a breeding objective.”

Taylor also notes that pearl growers may also be able to move their operation to areas newly conducive to pearl farming. “Some areas might become more appropriate, while some areas might no longer support [pearl farms],” he says. “As it stands, we structure the program so that we do certain activities in certain areas where it suits a particular life stage of the oyster. For example, all our breeding work is in north Bali, because we’ve found that site best suits survival and growth of young oysters. It might be with changing conditions, areas formerly good for pearl growing might not be so any more, and we might have to restructure or move entirely.”

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