1 pearl farm, 6 villages and a few good friends in the land of Oz.

Nasavu, Sawani, Nasawana and Raviravi

It is very rare that somebody calls me in the evening. It goes this way in Fiji. At 8 pm it is very late and at 9pm, everybody sleeps in Taveuni. But on Tuesday June 20th at 9:30pm, a Fisheries Officer called me. Now that is very odd. A few bowls of grog had probably loosened his inhibition preventing him from calling me.

-“Mr Claude…. It’s Ilisoni from Fisheries.”

Now this is very, very odd. Ilisoni is a working relation and not a close friend. His phone call had to be important then.

- “Yes Ilisoni, what can I do for you tonight.”

- “Mr Claude,… hum,… hum… (and the typical long pause of shyness)…”

- “What is it Ilisoni? did you have some grog? you sound in a good mood.”

- “Yes, we are celebrating. We are celebrating the oyster harvest. I am in Nasavu in Bua. Today, we harvested 4382 oysters, and you owe the village more than 11 000$!!!”

I just could not believe it. This was the phone call that I have been waiting for 10 years. Ilisoni would have called at midnight, and I would still bear the same smile of happiness. This was the culminating success of a long and arduous road filled with political movements, a bit of drama, cyclones, strong will and patience. My name is Claude Michel Prevost and I am the owner of 1 of the only 2 pearl farms in Fiji, Civa Fiji Pearls in Taveuni.

A pearl farm gobbles up a lot of oysters to survive. Because of normal mortality rate combined with the odd cyclone and random spikes in water temperatures, you need a constant inflow of fresh oysters to stay in the game. The more, the better (probably like everything else in life). The only reason why my farm is not a big farm is simply because I do not get the inflow of oysters, I need to grow the farm… until now. For that you need a lot of cash, and you need to know where to go. Pearl oysters can be found in the wild (handpicked on the reefs). This technique takes time, a lot of manpower and is a slow process. We can also find them by putting oyster collecting lines in the water where wild pearl larvae settles over time. We can also grow them in a hatchery, but it commands serious investments and is fraught with technical issues and unreliable outputs.

The Nasavu village used the spat collecting lines technique to get their oysters (that were sold back to us). By the end of the following week, I would receive almost 7000 oysters when the lines in Sawani and Nasawana would also be harvested. As I am writing these lines, the village of Raviravi is yet to harvest their lines, so that number will probably grow again.

ACIAR (to the rescue of a dying industry)

In 2012, ACIAR (Australian Center for International Agricultural research) in partnership with the Ministry of Fisheries embarked on a research program to understand the bottlenecks of the industry and find a cure to the decline. When I started my farm in 2007, there was about 10 farms in Fiji, in 2012 we were down to 5 and now we are only 2. The team leader of that project with ACIAR is Dr Paul Southgate from the University of Sunshine Coast. He oversees for the Australian agency most of the aid programs for aquaculture development in the South Pacific. Dr Southgate and his team quickly found the issues with the industry and proposed a set of measures to the Ministry of Fisheries to correct the situation at its core. Pearl farming is a very big Industry in French Polynesia, Cook Islands and Australia. Even though the ingredients are in place in Fiji to have a big industry that could easily surpass the sugar industry in terms import replacement, GDP output and exports, … pearl farming in Fiji is very small and insignificant. Pearl farming ticks all the boxes; it is a high value export commodity, it is set in maritime regions releasing the pressures of Nausori-Suva corridor, it has obvious benefits for the fishing rights owners, it has a small environmental impact, foreign exchange, etc… The most important aspect of pearl farming… it is a cool business. When people ask me what I do for a living and I answer that I am a pearl farmer, their eyes light up.

In 2012, one of the issues that was identified as a bottleneck was the poor availability of oysters for farmer. We can see them here and there in the reefs but when you put spat collectors in the water, it is always a hit-and-miss endeavor. I had good years and really bad years of spat collecting. So ACIAR with Fisheries embarked on a long trek to identify where are the hot spots for collecting, it is a slow and tedious research project where lines are deployed, and the waiting game begins. And if you include the impact of TC Winston and COVID in the mix, it is only 9 years later that we see the really good results. Now we know where to go and what to do to find them. Problem solved!

The Pearl Hub of Taveuni

How to include the traditional Fishing Rights Owners and local communities in this Industry has always been big in the hearts and minds of everyone involved. In early 2000, the Fisheries approach was to kick start pearl farms everywhere and it did not work. All the farms went bankrupt. Pearl farming is technical and very cash intensive in the first 5 years. So that approach was a recipe for disaster with the local communities.

ACIAR teaming up with the Ministry of Fisheries came up with the tested approach of French Polynesia to slowly incorporate in the pearl industry the traditional Fishing Right Owners by encouraging them to become suppliers of pearl oysters for pearl farms and producers of half-pearls (mabe) and mother-of-pearl handicraft. The rationale being that over time, the better groups could become pearl farmer themselves. It took the better part of 20 years to have locals operate pearl farms in Tahiti following the same approach. The majority of pearl farms in Tahiti are now locally owned.

And this is how from 1 pearl farm in Taveuni, 6 other villages are now partners in this Pearl Hub. The villages of Sawani, RaviRavi, Nasavu and Nasawana are pearl oyster supplier for our Taveuni Farm. After round pearl production is over, the oysters are then transferred to Dreketi village in Qamea where the women’s club are involved in Mabe production with these oysters. And at one point, the spent shells are then transferred to another village in Taveuni where the Somosomo women’s club is engaged in mother -of-pearl handicraft at the Nasomo Ra Marama Handicraft Center.

All these initiatives are the fruits of the partnership between ACIAR, the University of Sunshine Coast, The Ministry of Fisheries and Forest, and our company, Civa Fiji Pearls Pte Ltd. This program stands on its own, is profitable and creates livelihoods every day.