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The jewel of animal husbandry

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James Brown, General Manager of Cygnet Bay Pearls, is a third generation pearler and outlines the history behind his family’s business as well as the finer points of pearl aquaculture and how pearls are grown today.    
Cygnet Bay Pearls was originally founded by James’ grandfather in 1946 when he sailed his old wooden lugger into King Sound. He first settled on Sunday Island where there was an Aboriginal mission, also a ready source of assistance, labour and local knowledge of the surrounding waters. It was mother-of-pearl that was first collected, the shells being used in the textile industry for things like mother-of-pearl buttons.  In the mid 1950s, the technology of cultured pearls was brought to Australia by Pearls Pty Ltd which was owned by the American and Japanese with a small Australian shareholder. This was a window of opportunity and Lyndon Brown, James’ uncle, managed to figure out how to culture pearls, thus becoming the first non-Japanese person in the world to do so on a commercial basis. For this reason, today, Cygnet Bay Pearls is known as the first all-Australian-based pearling venture.

Growing cultured pearls is a multifaceted science. The first phase involves getting the host shell which in this case meant collecting by hand off Eighty Mile Beach and transporting them back to the pearl farms. This is something they don’t have to do anymore as pearl farms now have their own oyster hatcheries.
Left: performing the delicate seeding operation

In the next phase, the shells are grown to the required size prior to the first medical type operation, where grafted tissue is inserted into the animal, creating a pearl sac around a nucleus. This is followed by farming husbandry; caring for and maintaining the animal and its pearl sac for some two years while the pearl grows. The pearl is then harvested and, if the removal job is good, that shell can be reseeded. This can often be done two or three times before the results are unproductive.

Above: Oyster with pearl

Left: Harvesting the pearls

When that point is reached, the shell itself is harvested and sold in bulk to wholesalers for eventual use in shell jewellery, watch face inlays and paint products. The adductor muscles from the oysters are sold to the Asian market, where they fetch around $300 per kilo. The native oysters that grow in the beds at Eighty Mile Beach still form the backbone of the industry with carefully selected shell harvesting done every year. The single species involved is the silver or gold lipped-pearl oyster, Pinctada maxima. The numbers of shells produced each year is phenomenal for the species and is the reason why the Australian pearl industry is so strong as it is the biggest mother-of-pearl shell found on the planet. The harvest of 1.5 million shells from Eighty Mile Beach each year is totally sustainable and has been for the last 50 years, as fishery research officers can attest.

Working on the lines

Pinctada maxima can detach themselves from their sessile, clinging positions as their weight holds them down on the flat sea beds beneath the tidal waters, meaning they have the ability to move around to suitable ground on the sea floor, even if limited. The species is found right along The Kimberley coast from as far south as Exmouth to the northern parts as well as across the Northern Territory and into Queensland but its abundance at Eight Mile Beach is unmatched. Cygnet Bay Pearls employs 65 people at the peak harvest time in mid-winter when water temperatures are at their lowest, while a core staff of some 40 people manages the operation for the rest of the year. The new method of growth which sees shells in panels attached to lines suspended in the water column (as opposed to being located on the sea floor) means that there is more light so more oyster growth yet more bio fowling.

Pinctada maxima oysters

The shells have to be kept clean and cleaning the shells in the hot, wet season especially requires constant vigilance and is done by high pressure water hoses after the lines have been hauled out of the water. Each shell is then meticulously cleaned by hand before being replaced in its slot in the panel. This is a practice that underlines the delicate balance between art and science that produces each pearl and demonstrates why it is so important to keep each oyster healthy. The final colour of each pearl is determined by the donor tissue implanted in that first seeding operation, not by any other husbandry process during the oysters’ lifecycle. And so it would seem that the pearl industry is indeed the jewel of animal husbandry.

Oyster long lines

James Brown was interviewed for A Question of Balance by Ruby Vincent. Images provided by Cygnet Bay Pearls. Summary text prepared by Victor Barry, August 2011.

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