Pearl farmer refocuses on long-term

Pearls of Australia Managing Director, James Brown

As hundreds of Central Coast businesses struggle to keep their heads above water during the coronavirus pandemic, Broken Bay Pearl Farm has successfully re-deployed the tourism and retail arms of its business to intensify the spawning of pearl oyster shells.

Owned by Pearls of Australia, the company usually operates tours of its Mooney Mooney Shellar Door from Woy Woy.

It also operates charter or guest tours for Bells at Killcare and Pretty Beach House at Hardy’s Bay, offering tourists the opportunity to discover just how pearls are made.

But Woy Woy based managing director and marine scientist, James Brown, said the restrictions imposed during the pandemic have led to a redirection of effort to producing more baby pearl oysters locally that will produce pearls in 2025.

The move has seen staff redeployed to hands-on pearl farming.

As an Australian first, the intensified approach has resulted in the spawning of two pearl species concurrently, one at Broken Bay and one at the company’s parent operation in Western Australia.

The Broken Bay Pearl Farm has produced the Pinctada fucata or Akoya pearl, while the Cygnet Bay Pearl Farm in Broome has produced the giant Pinctada maxima or Australian South Sea pearl.

The Cygnet Bay Pearl Farm in WA is the oldest Australian-owned pearl farm, while its younger cousin, the Broken Bay Pearl Farm opened in 2003, becoming NSW’s first cultured pearl farm.

Pearls of Australia bought into the business in 2017.

“We have lost over 90% of our revenue in the last few months due to this pandemic,” James Brown, himself a third-generation pearl farmer, said.

“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 5- 10 years.

“Timing is everything when it comes to spawning oysters; like 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.”

Brown said it takes up to six years from spawning oyster larvae in specialised hatcheries to finally harvest a pearl.

“The oysters are generally around 2 to 3 years of age before they are able to be ‘seeded’ to start the pearl culturing process, and then it takes another 18 months to two years before the pearls are fully grown and ready for harvesting,” he said.

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

“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 babies.”

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.

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

He said while the spawning undertaken in WA is part of an ongoing long-term Cooperative Research Centre project supporting family line breeding, the Broken Bay program uses more traditional techniques involving mass spawning rather than targeting select families.

“This is partly due to strict biosecurity regulations around moving oysters between waterways in NSW,” he said.

“Both methods yield millions of baby pearl shell.

“Three years later we hope to have a few thousand of these shells ready to seed for pearls.

“The, after two more years of hard work we hopefully will have a handful of the world’s highest quality gems in our hands.”

Source: Media release, Apr 30, 2020 – Scout PR