Back in 1990 I began dreaming of a humane method for growing pearls. I had just begun my master’s degree in conservation management and sustainable development, and my goal was to grow pearl oysters without damaging the environment or disrupting local communities while offering a beautiful, feel-good product.
This was my focus because back in the 1980s and 1990s, the most successful aquaculture ventures were those revolving around shrimp farming. I had visited several and to my dismay, I saw how they were usually established in mangrove forest lagoons, destroying important ecosystems to build the shrimp ponds. Plus, most of these ventures also had a work system in place featuring poorly paid workers living in barracks and away from their families for prolonged periods. Regrettably, some of these farms even introduced several Asian-shrimp virus strains that not only were responsible for the near destruction of this aquacultural industry but also infected the wild-grown shrimp populations and caused a triple-whammy effect: salty plots of land that were devoid of life except for some desert bushes and sea-monkey-like crustaceans.
This was not what I wanted as the basis of a new aquafarming industry. And the more that my research group and I learned about pearl farming, the more we realized that a pearl farm would be able to attain the proverbial environmental Shangri-La complete with fair wages and other aspects of sustainable industry standards. And working conditions? These had to be addressed as well.
Even back in those days, pearl farmers all over the world understood the clear relationship between pearl oysters and their environment, which paved the way for the commonly repeated phrase “Beautiful pearls only grow in healthy environments.” But as time passed and my team eventually ended up working with farm employees, I saw another factor in the equation: beautiful pearls only grow in healthy pearl oysters that are taken care of by people who love them. This brings us full circle on the connection between the environment, the mollusks, the people, and the gem, showing us that pearl farming offers best-in-class sustainability within the gem world.
Douglas McLaurin-Moreno is a biochemistry engineer with a master’s degree in sustainability and natural resources management as well as a university professor, PAO instructor, and a founder of the Sea of Cortez pearl brand, the first commercial marine pearl farm in the entire American continent. Still life photo by Ted Morrison. Pearls from Columbia Gem House.