Cook Islands pearl industry at risk


The Cook Islands pearl industry suffers from a supply shortage that threatens its future.

Local farmers are being forced to kill oysters due to the lack of highly trained Japanese technicians in the country due to travel restrictions caused by the Covid-19 pandemic.

Jewelers fear this could create a shortage of Cook Islands black pearls which they believe will devastate supply chains, leaving lasting ramifications.

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

Pearls of the Cook Islands
Photo: Kora Beads

Black pearls in particular are their main form of income, but with skilled technicians excluded from the country due to covid, the situation is dire.

At least 10 farmers who supply pearls to wholesalers for jewelry production face uncertainty.

One of them, Kora Kora, has 40 years of experience in the industry and some have said that it is already too late.

“It’s a lot of challenges to be honest. We lost a lot of money when we didn’t have the techs back then, we had 15 months without sales. My uncle is no longer cultivating because of all these challenges. . My cousin – about three or four of them actually – are done, they don’t want to start farming again. “

Technicians excluded 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.

In the past 18 months without him, almost double that number has been wasted.

MIQ delays in managed isolation in New Zealand make it difficult for foreign technicians to pass through the country, said director of Ora Moana, a black pearl trader, Raymond Newnham.

“It has affected production levels in the country as these technicians have to go through New Zealand which means two weeks there and they also have to be isolated.”

One Kiwi jeweler he supplies is David Wheeler, director of The Artist Gold Smith, who is deeply concerned about the future of the industry and has plans to highlight the issue at an art show in his town. Nelson’s birth in the South Island next month.

Because they deal in small numbers, his company has enough stock to supply – but he said larger jewelers would find it difficult to get their hands on sufficient quantities of pearls.

“This whole industry is going to suffer for a long time and it is very doubtful that it will recover, so I have serious concerns for the well-being of the islanders in this area.”

Pearl fisherman Kora Kora

Pearl fisherman Kora Kora
Photo: Kora Beads

But back in Manihiki, a determined Mr. Kora insists they’ll 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 as low as possible and then, ultimately, it’s people like me and my nephew and others who will bring this industry back again. ”

Longer term, shortages could change the way people buy and trade black pearls, Wheeler said.

He encouraged all who were considering acquiring black pearls – now is the time to do so.

Meanwhile, there was some hope that farmers would become more self-reliant, which could help keep the pearl industry afloat.

Mr Kora said the Cook Island Department of Marine Resources has a program in place to train locals to become technicians – which could help farmers pass their skills on to the next generation without having to rely so much on them. foreign workers.

However, the process of acquiring vital skills would take months and years of practice to master.

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