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Atoll harvests black pearls
By Steve Limtiaco
Pacific Daily News
The 300 or so residents of Pohnpei's Nukuoro Atoll are mainly subsistence farmers, but former Chief Magistrate George Steven during the past several years has jump-started an earlier attempt by the community to farm black pearls in the atoll's calm, warm waters, using oysters that already live there.
If the community-run effort is successful, cash from the sale of pearls could help support education, health care and other community needs, he said, but the current challenge is breaking even. That might not happen for a couple of years.
"Nukuoro Black Pearls," with Steven as president, has seven employees who harvest about 6,000 black pearls a year from about 10,000 black-lip pearl oysters.
Half the pearls are sold through a Hawaiian company and Steven sells the other half on Pohnpei and elsewhere in the region. He was on Guam earlier this month visiting local jewelers, rolling a small suitcase with samples and pearls mounted as earrings or pendants. A small pearl mounted as a pendant sells for about $100, and a pair of earrings goes for about $400 to $600.
The operation has been growing. The farm is now attracting and raising enough oysters on its own without having to gather wild oysters, Steven said. Oyster "seeding" that happened every other year now is done annually. It's the most expensive part of the farming process -- about $3 per oyster -- and requires the services of a "seeding technician" contracted from Tahiti.
Helping the community is the Marine and Environmental Research Institute of Pohnpei, which gets its funding from federal and private sources.
"We started working together about six years ago, and we've mainly helped George and the farm with technical and marketing issues," such as bringing in jewelry-making experts and helping to find markets for the pearls, said Simon Ellis, director of the institute.
"Our goal is to develop industry in Pohnpei that's sustainable but profitable, so they can export products and bring revenue in, but not affecting the environment," Ellis said. "In addition to working with the pearl farming, we also farm corals which we ship to the marine aquarium industry in the states, and also we do bath sponges, which are sold to the bath and beauty industry."
The Nukuoro operation is one of three in Micronesia -- there are two operating in the Republic of the Marshall Islands
Simon said French Polynesia dominates the black pearl industry, supplying more than 90 percent of the world's black pearls.
The 6,000 pearls Nukuoro currently produces is about what is needed to find enough round pearls to make a single necklace. Most pearls aren't round, which is why jewelry settings are chosen to match their drop shape.
While they are called black pearls, they actually come in many colors.
"The last two years, we've managed to sell all of our pearls, in Pohnpei, and some to Hawaii. The reason we're here now (on Guam) is looking for an expanded market because the production is growing," Ellis said.
Nukuoro is not even close to its full potential -- many more oysters can be grown there -- but buyers need to be found to provide enough money to seed additional oysters.
"I want to increase the production, but we're just waiting for the time the funding is available," Steven said. "When we start making money, it's a plus for the community. We'll take out whatever we make for the operation -- we set aside the cost of the operation -- and a percentage we turn over to the municipal government so they can program that money."
Originally published June 19, 2006