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Shell be right


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James Brown, General Manager of Cygnet Bay Pearls, looks at some of the problems facing the pearl industry, not all of which are as home grown as the pearls.     
The company has a long history with the local Traditional Owners, relying on their extensive knowledge and appreciation of the local area to establish Cygnet Bay’s pearling venture here on the tip of the Dampier Peninsula.
In the early days, the road from Broome to Cape Leveque was often cut off for months on end so having a local workforce was another advantage for the business. This close relationship remains today as well as with many non-indigenous workers throughout the industry.
Although Cygnet Bay Pearls has been in continuous operation for some 50 years, as essentially a farming industry, growing pearls is not without its challenges. In 2006 an unknown virus wrought havoc in the hatchery and wiped out over a million shell in Exmouth Bay causing one long-standing company, Kailis, to exit the industry. Marine borne pathogens are difficult to control and the virus has spread so new management techniques are constantly developed as the old ways of growing juvenile pearls now have a 90% fatality rate.
Work is being done with the team at WA Fish Health Laboratories as well as other institutes to come up with solutions and new techniques. To this end, the surviving oysters are being bred as a natural means of combating the unidentified virus but breeding programs take time to come to fruition. This type of genetic manipulation is at least 10 to 15 years away from being a viable proposition. Fortunately, the oysters in the wild at Eighty Mile Beach are not as affected as those cultured in the hatcheries and may well provide answers to cultured pearl growth.

Tide's out at (part of) Eighty Mile Beach (WA www coastalcare.org.au)

The global financial crisis had a massive effect on international pearling markets with Australian production declining some 50% and employment also halving from around 1000 to about 500. The industry is well aware it has boom and bust cycles and that any financial crisis means a downturn in discretionary spending, thus affecting the pearl industry as a whole. Cygnet Bay Pearls, however, has managed to ride out those downturns.

Pearl technicians at work (James Brown, right)

Climate change is another concern for the industry and it has begun looking at potential sites that offer the best protection against ocean acidification and rising sea surface temperatures. At present, the oysters can survive the wet season water temperatures of 31° but a rise to 32° is thought to be a damaging one and increasing acidification affects any marine animal that produces a calcium carbonate exoskeleton. What is clear is that if shell health is reduced then so is the product inside it as pearls are essentially just layers of calcium carbonate crystals. As such, the wild oysters may well prove to be an indicator species for the affects of climate change.

Lab shack

Cygnet Bay Pearls has more recently been offering its pearl farm facilities to independent marine researchers in an effort to engage broad scale marine research in the Kimberley region. Since 2009, the Western Australian Marine Science Institute (WAMSI) has been resourceful in connecting the company to various organisations and researchers. This led to the launch of the Kimberley Marine Research Station (KMRS) as the first and only fully-operational marine research base in the region at the WAMSI and Royal Society of WA Kimberley Coastal and Marine Science Symposium at the WA Maritime Museum in Fremantle earlier this year.


This year, Cygnet Bay Pearls appointed a full-time Research Officer, Ali McCarthy, living on-site at Cygnet Bay. Ali coordinates research projects and teams as well as providing logistical and operational support such as monitoring deployed research equipment and experiments. At KMRS the next five years promise to be an exciting time for this kind of marine research in the Kimberley!

Hopefully, for the pearl industry it really is a case of shell be right.

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

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