Cook Islands’ pearl industry in peril

Pearls from the Cook Islands Photo: Kora Pearls

The Cooks Islands’ pearl industry is suffering a shortage of supply which is threatening its future.

Local farmers are being forced to kill off oysters because off a lack of highly-skilled Japanese technicians in country due to travel restrictions brought on by the Covid-19 pandemic.

Jewellers are concerned this is creating a shortage of black pearls from the Cook Islands which they fear will devastate supply chains leaving lasting ramifications.

Just over 200 people live on Manihiki and 20% of them are pearl farmers.

Black pearls specifically are their main form of income but with the skilled technicians locked out of the country due to covid the situtation is dire.

At least 10 farmers who supply pearls to whole-salers for jewelry production face uncertainty.

One of these, Kora Kora, has 40 years’ experience in the industry, and said for some it was already too late.

“It is a lot of challenge to be honest. We’ve lost quite a bit of money when we didn’t have the technicians back then we had 15 months with no sales. My Uncle is not farming anymore because all of those challenges. My cousin – about three or four of them actually – have finished, they no longer want to farm again.”

The technicians shut out by the pandemic are needed to seed the oysters and harvest the pearls.

Kora said their Japanese technician would normally harvest around 70,000 oysters for three different farmers on the island.

Over the last 18 months without him almost double that number has gone to waste.

MIQ delays within managed isolation in New Zealand is making it difficult for foreign technicians needing to transit through the country, Director of Ora Moana, a trader of black pearls Raymond Newnham said.

“That’s affected the production levels in the country because these technicians have to come through New Zealand which means two weeks there and they also have to get into managed isolation.”

A Kiwi jeweller he supplies to is David Wheeler, manager of The Artist Gold Smith, who is deeply concerned for the future of the industry and planned to highlight the problem in an art exhibition in his home town of Nelson in the South Island next month.

Because they deal in small numbers, his business has enough stock to supply – but he said larger jewellers would find it hard to get their hands on sufficient pearl quantities.

“That whole industry is going to suffer for a long time and whether they will recover is very much in doubt so I have grave concerns for the welfare of the islanders from that sector.”

But back on Manihiki a determined Mr Kora is insistent that they will carry the whole industry on their own shoulders if they have to.

“No I won’t give up, the only time I will give up is when I can’t dive anymore. It’s going to hit the lowest it can then, eventually, it’s people like myself and my nephew and others who are going to carry this industry back again.”

In the longer term shortages could change the way people buy and trade in black pearls, Mr Wheeler said.

He encouraged anyone thinking of acquiring some black pearls – now would be the time to do it.

Meanwhile, there was some hope around farmers becoming more self-sufficient which could help keep the pearl industry afloat.

Mr Kora said the Cook Island’s Ministry of Marine Resources have been running a programme to train up locals to become technicians – which could help farmers pass on skills to the next generation without having to rely so heavily on foreign workers.

However, the process to learn vital skills would take months and years of practise to master.

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