Farm Life: Paspaley in North Western Australia
Michael Bracher, executive director of Paspaley Pearls, weighs in on an unprecedented year in Australian pearling
What a year it’s been! The markets were virtually closed for a good part of the year, Paspaley had significant staff costs in the remote regions of Australia, and Covid-19 presented some significant practical challenges in the early months. But our technicians and fleet crew went the extra mile this year and we are very grateful to them.
Thankfully, Covid was our only big obstacle this year! Australia’s state and international borders were closed with little notice, and some of our usual flight routes were canceled. Our Japanese pearl technicians had to leave Japan and their families one month earlier than usual and spend two weeks in quarantine in both Sydney and Darwin. We spent weeks to get an exemption to allow our farm staff to travel between the Northwest Territory and Western Australia borders. Once the season started, our fleet stayed at sea until its completion. This ensured that our work sites remained Covid-free, but it was a big commitment from our staff, who are accustomed to having some fun in town after long stretches at sea.
Our farms are located across more than 1,000 km of Australia’s northwest coastline. From March to June, our dive ships are working on the historic 80 Mile Beach pearling grounds, which are about 100–150 nautical miles south of Broome. From May to September our operations ships are located at our various pearl farm sites in Broome, Kuri Bay, Osborne Islands, and the Vansittart region. We also have ships and crew permanently located at these sites. Ships not required for operations return to Darwin for the off-season and refit.
All of our pearl technicians are Japanese and must undergo years of training on other types of shell before graduating to Australian South Sea oysters. South Sea oysters are sensitive creatures that are easily stressed and susceptible to mishandling. We use predominantly wild oysters that are expensive to fish and not available in unlimited numbers.
The pearling season from March through June went well. The fishing grounds were in excellent shape, the oysters were in perfect health, and Paspaley was able to collect wild oysters in optimal size ranges. The number of oysters that can be collected is set by the Department of Fisheries and can vary significantly from year to year. The wild population is assessed each year, and catch numbers are set at levels that ensure long-term sustainability of the fishery.
This year’s harvest was fantastic, about 5 percent larger in volume and slightly higher in quality. The areas in which we operate are remote and pristine, and Paspaley goes to a lot of effort ensuring they stay that way. We are still grading our most recent harvest, which will be sold next year through various distribution channels, including our auctions, privately to leading jewelry manufacturers and retailers, and through our own retail division in Australia.
Paspaley conducted its first online pearl auction in March to service the trade during restricted travel and has held one each month since. The auction platform included photographs and videos of every lot and an online bidding service. This allowed our U.S. customer base to follow the market without physically attending the viewing of lots in Hong Kong and Japan.
We offered a relatively small amount of stock in the first few auctions but gradually increased the offering as the market strengthened. Each auction outperformed the previous one. This is partly a reflection of the rebound in demand, but it also reflects the wholesale market’s increased confidence in the stability of price and supply of high-quality Australian pearls.
This year has delivered an incredible harvest in spite of the challenges and turmoil going on in the world. In contrast to what was happening in human society, the ocean, the tides, and the oysters kept doing what they do: producing these beautiful marvels of nature. There is something comforting in knowing that. It makes me feel that no matter how bad situations get, things will eventually get back to normal. All the more reason that we should respect and care for Mother Nature.
Until next time,