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Boost for pearl growing in Fiji and Tonga

Researchers are investigating the viability of pearl industries for Fiji and Tonga. Fiji has an established industry and Tonga is looking to grab it's share of the lucrative market. French Polynesia and Cook Islands pearl industries hit hard times recenlty after it was discovered they were inadequalty resourced.

The Australian government's Pacific Agribusiness Research for Development Initiative (PARDI), is funding the projects in Fiji and Tonga.

Presenter:Geraldine Coutts
Speaker:Jamie Whitford, senior project scientist, Pacific Agribusiness Research for Development Initiative

WHITFORD: We feel that there's a lot of room for development in Fiji and also Tonga, mainly because mistakes have been made in the other two industries. So we're hoping to promote a stable industry here by focussing on quality and some of the unique attributes that Fiji at least has is quality coupled with some unique colours that are popular with the market.

COUTTS: Ok well we'll get to the attributes in a moment, but you mentioned the mistakes that French Polynesia and the Cook Islands have made with their industry. What are those mistakes and obviously what I'm asking you is then what will you be avoiding?

WHITFORD: Unfortunately in French Polynesia and the Cook Islands there's been a lack of capital with many farmers to carry the process through, and so pearling tends to rely on high quality goods to give good returns. If you have a lack of capital and you put your lower quality goods onto the market then you can ruin the reputation of the industry that you're part of it. And so it's very location specific. This is what's happened in French Polynesia and also the Cook Islands, there's been an oversupply of the particular type of pearls that they produce, and there's been a particular oversupply of lower quality goods, which has reduced the price of the whole crop.

COUTTS: And lower quality goods mean they haven't waited for the maturation process to take its natural course, they've pulled and plucked or farmed the pearls a little early and therefore a lower grade?

WHITFORD: Yeah that's pretty much what's happened, basically yeah to replenish their capital reserves, because this is often the only way that they can get capital, pearl farmers in isolated areas of French Polynesia and the Cook Islands, they've sold pearls too early with not enough coating on the outside of the pearl.

COUTTS: Now Fiji and Tonga, are they going to be well funded and capitalised so that they can wait for the full process before they harvest their pearls?

WHITFORD: Capital is always a problem and I guess funding is the same. But what we'll be doing is trying to decimate knowledge of this effect into the industry, and also interacting with governments, so when the industries do get up and running, and the one in Fiji is, there's a bit more central regulation and there's also assistance to farmers who don't have the capital reserves. Or there may be other ways of integrating the industry, and so people can get involved in pearling without capital by producing oysters from more established farmers.

COUTTS: To avoid the competition though I guess will take place between the existing pearl nations, like French Polynesia for instance is noted for its black pearls and others, and Cook Islands has its own distinct brand once they've got their good quality ones, will Fiji and Tonga have their own colours it'll market so it doesn't take the market away from French Polynesia and the Cook Islands, or doesn't that matter, is it an open market therefore get on with it?

WHITFORD: No the market's not open, the market tends to change quite rapidly as fashion dictates, and so whatever colour is popular tends to be the one that has a marketing advantage at that time. Colour is dependent on markets and the pearls tend to suit people with different skin tone, and that is manipulated by people who are selling, retailing to particular markets overseas. Yeah a successful colour tends to be produced by locality, and at the moment Fiji is the one with the colour that's being marketed quite successfully.

COUTTS: Well you mentioned earlier that Fiji will have unique attributes in its colours, what are the colours and how do you get them?

WHITFORD: Well we're here as a research project to try and determine some of that. The colours that are produced in Fiji are very nice greeny pistachios and rose colours, they are produced from black pearl oysters so the rose and the greens tend to overlay the darker grey. Whereas the Cook Islands and French Polynesia tend to produce a much darker greyish type of pearl. We think, and this is why we're here to research, that the Fiji Islands and also Tonga have a nutritional advantage for the oysters, because the environment has a lot more run-off from the land. So there's a lot more interaction with the land and the sea than there is from the atoll environments of French Polynesia and the Cook Islands.

COUTTS: Well what colours will you be looking to produce in Tonga?

WHITFORD: Tonga also has this geomorphology in its islands, particularly Vava'u where there's a lot of interaction between the land and the sea. Tonga we're hoping also to get these roses and pistachio greens that I mentioned similar to Fiji.

COUTTS: Now you're looking and still researching both the industries in Fiji and Tonga. When do you expect the first pearls and jewellery to be sold?

WHITFORD: At the moment the Fiji market's quite vibrant, there's a commercial producer here that have been selling high quality pearls into the international markets for about five years now. Tonga, because again of its lack of capital development hasn't penetrated the international market, but we would expect that with some of the training that we're giving to the Tongan farmers, and we also are supporting hatchery production in Tonga to increase the number of oysters available to local farmers, that the first harvest is within three years should produce marketable goods with the colours that we've been talking about.

COUTTS: Well how valuable an industry can it be? I know French Polynesia dominates the market at the moment with about 170-million US annually. What are we looking at in Fiji and Tonga?

WHITFORD: Again there are restrictions with entries to the industry because of the capital required. We would think that the market, particularly in Fiji would be similar to the one in French Polynesia. Tonga has a much smaller population and also less of a geographical opportunity than Fiji just because of its smaller size, and so I think that the market there would always be smaller.

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