The northern atoll of Manihiki is arguably the most beautiful island of the Cook Islands. Its 40 tiny islets encircle a pristine lagoon four kilometres wide. And this completely enclosed body of water is the birthplace of the island’s greatest treasure, its black pearls.
The lagoon is dotted with pearl farms and their shell lines hang as deep as 10 metres.
Pearl farming on Manihiki involves cultivating the special black-lipped oyster otherwise known as the “Pinctada Margaritifera”, or black-lip mother-of-pearl.
The clear water of the Manihiki lagoon is vital to the growth of black pearls. It can take 18 months to 2 years for the pearl to reach harvest size.
But the Cook Islands pearl industry has dramatically slowed down in production over the last few years and it’s estimated that as few as a dozen farms remain active on Manihiki.
Competition in the market from China, Japan and Tahiti, a perceived lack of government support (ironic given Prime Minister Henry Puna was a Manahiki pearl farmer) and plummeting market prices are blamed for the crisis.
Now, a decision to close down the Cook Islands Pearl Authority, which was set up to help the industry, has seen the transfer of its marketing functions to the Ministry of Marine Resources.
The Pearl Authority was set up in 1994 to provide direction and regulation of the pearl industry and support by marketing Cook Islands pearls and operating the Pearl Exchange.
In its heyday in 2000, the Cook Islands black pearl industry was worth $18 million a year. 200 farmers worked the lagoon. 1.5 million oysters were cultivated. A quarter of a million black pearls were produced every year.
Now there are fewer than 25 farmers working the lagoon, half of those only occasionally.
Pearl farmer and current chairman of the Manihiki Pearl Farmers’ Association, Kora Kora, has been in the business of producing pearls in Manihiki for almost 30 years.
Kora says the discharge of the Cook Islands Pearl Authority has left pearl farmers without a voice and fighting to sustain the industry.
The challenge has been the low production of pearls over the last three years, says Kora. On average, Kora produces around 16,000 pearls every year.
Kora reckons there are only around 15 active pearl farmers on Manihiki and 10 on and off farmers.
He remembers a time when New Zealand aid money and Chinese equipment supplies were used to help the pearl farmers of Manihiki; now, he believes the focus is on marketing Cook Islands black pearls and not looking after production.
But there is a future for the industry, he says, and time to revive it. “In Manihiki, pearl farming is all Manihikians can do.”
Kora is passionate about the industry; to see Tahitian pearls sold in the Cook Islands makes him angry. It’s not doing justice for the pearl industry, he says. Kora will sells only the pearls they produce in the lagoon of Manihiki.
“Pearl farming and selling pearls…. it’s all I know.”
Another pearl farmer Temu Okotai agrees – the pearl industry is in trouble.
At one time the industry could produce 200, 000 pearls a year, now they are lucky to produce a fraction of that, he says. “It’s a disaster.”
More worrying, Okotai – a former friend and colleague of Puna – says the government is reluctant to talk to the pearl farmers.
“How is the industry going to survive with no pearls?”
He says the local tourist market is the only thing keeping the industry going.
Government authorised the dissolution of the Pearl Authority earlier this year with the transfer of the Pearl Exchange to Ministry of Marine Resources last month.
Ministry Secretary Pamela Maru says the government had recognised the importance and functional value of the Pearl Exchange to the industry by mandating the transfer.
The Pearl Exchange purchases parcels of pearls from farmers and sells them wholesale to local and international buyers.
Urgent work is underway to remedy legislative constraints, as current laws do not provide the Ministry the mandate to operate the trading aspects of the exchange.
Maru says the Pearl Exchange plays a crucial role in the supply chain between pearl farmers and the market.
“The Ministry of Marine Resources has prioritised this work to minimise disruptions and its impact on stakeholders during this transitional period.
“We look forward to further developing our relationships with all black pearl industry stakeholders,” she adds.
The Ministry’s Pearl Support and Laboratory Division provides technical and management support to assist the pearl industry. This work is conducted by a team of technical staff and a senior marine ecologist in Rarotonga; and a pearl biologist, station manager and two fisheries officers in Manihiki.
The Ministry’s support programmes have focused on helping the industry to recover from the combined effects of disease, declines in market prices and rising production costs.
The Water Quality Monitoring Programme run by the Ministry also includes the collection and testing of lagoon water samples from Manihiki to inform farmers about lagoon conditions.
Kora Kora insists on remaining hopeful that, with government and aid assistance, the pearl farmers can rebuild their industry.
“As a pearl farmer, I feel strongly about increasing production,” he says.
“There is a way forward.”