Manihiki's Black Gold

It’s a typical island house – modest, weather-worn, doorless, louvers in the windows – except that outside there’s no yard and no neighbour. The house is built on a patch of coral reef called kaoa, and it’s surrounded by cerulean sea.

It’s a speck in the middle of a lagoon 10 kilometres wide, a body of water bounded by a thin ring of coral atoll – the island of Manihiki, nicknamed Island of Pearls and located more than 1200 kilometres north of Rarotonga.

This house on the kaoa is the mainstay of a pearl farm, where oysters are cultured to produce the black pearls that consumers everywhere recognise as a symbol of exotic Polynesia and its resplendent natural beauty. Manihiki’s lagoon is dotted with them – some are large enough to accommodate permanent residents, but most are small like this one.

Inside the building are a couple of wooden tables, a desk, some chairs, and a kitchen bench. Outside there’s a long-drop toilet made of cement, and below, on lines anchored by rocks and supported by buoys, hang hundreds of Pinctada margaritifera – black-lip pearl oysters.

In the corner, a technician from Japan concentrates into the lamplight. He stares intently at the shell mounted before him. Steadily, he makes his cut. With one tool he incises the oyster’s flesh, and with another he retrieves a black pearl, then plunks it into a blue Tip-Top container filled with water.

Outside, workers are seated at a wooden bench, killing the oysters that have failed to produce pearls and extracting their korori – meat – to be eaten. If unhealthy oysters are allowed to live in the lagoon, they will consume oxygen and nutrients that would be better spent on their pearl-producing counterparts.

The process Farmers catch wild oysters when they’re young by hanging haruharu – submerged ropes or branches, places for floating spat to settle, during biannual spawning periods in April and October.

Once they are large enough the young oysters are seeded, or implanted with a nucleus – a yellow bead made of pearl shell from the Mississippi river – and a piece of tissue from the mantle of a donor oyster. The cultured oyster reacts to the presence of the foreign object, creating a cyst to heal itself, and filling the space with nacre – the building block of a black pearl, the colour of which is influenced by the tissue from the mantle.

During the months of gestation, farmers concentrate on keeping the submerged shells healthy. Regularly bringing them up and scraping them of marine build-up is said to yield larger, rounder pearls. Recently the practice of cleaning shells while they are still in the water hanging on their chaplets, is said to cause the oysters less stress.

After 18 months, they prepare for the harvest. Several locals are trained in the art of culturing pearls, but most farmers employ technicians from overseas.

During harvest time, technicians and farmers are on the kaoa from sunrise to sunset. Divers retrieve submerged chaplets, and farmhands wedge the shells open and line them up for the technician, who extracts the pearls that survived the incubation period. Some of the oysters will have failed to produce pearls, but there are the successes, and these will sell.

Technicians grade the pearls based on their shape, size, lustre, surface, and colour, according to the criteria outlined by the Cook Islands Pearl Authority.

History The black pearl launched the remote atoll of Manihiki into the global economy in the 1980s. At its peak, the industry was earning an annual $18 million, and the tiny islands of the northern group were becoming recognised on the international stage.

But the story begins about a century before that. In the 1800s, locals were collecting wild shells and selling them to colonial traders on Rarotonga or passing ships. The colourful oyster shells were in demand by button manufacturers.

In the 1950s, an English scientist named Ron Powell teamed up with Tekake William, a local who had proven himself as a skilled diver in the years he spent collecting pearls from the floor of the Penrhyn lagoon. In 1960, he set a record for diving 38 fathoms – nearly 70 metres – without a tank. Together Ron and Tekake devised a way to attract oyster spat seeking somewhere to settle and grow. They hung branches from the ngangie tree, and the young spat came. Using haruharu enabled them to monitor the oysters as they grew, and then to harvest their pearls all at once.

In the 1970s, a man named Peter Cumming, formerly the manager of an Australian pearl company, landed on Rarotonga with a plan. He’d heard about the sprawling lagoons of the northern atolls, and he wanted to experiment with cultured pearl farming, the way other entrepreneurs had in French Polynesia. Peter procured a licence from the government to farm pearls, and Manihiki Pearls Limited was born, heralding the growth of a hugely profitable industry.

Later a Chinese-Tahitian entrepreneur and pearl magnate named Yves Tchen-Pan arrived in Manihiki, an island to which he had ancestral ties. He’d heard that Manihiki’s lagoon was full of wild shells, but he knew the island had no airport. He wanted to go for the adventure. Yves took 3000 bags of cement from Fiji and materials to build a farm and a hangar for his plane. He began his own operation, employing locals to dive for shells and providing technicians to seed them, and everybody split the profits.

In the 1980s and 90s, the money was rolling in, and locals who had moved overseas were returning home to start farms. More than 220 people were licensed to farm pearls, and the islands of Penrhyn and Rakahanga had established industries also. But, like all good things, the period of unbridled profit came to an end. The industry weathered several major storms; today it continues to produce high-quality pearls, but it is a shadow of its former self.

In 1997, Cyclone Martin hit Manihiki, causing $3 million worth of damage to farming equipment and infrastructure. By a miracle, most oysters escaped unscathed; low air pressure had caused the sea level to rise, creating distance between anchored lines and the waves that flattened the atoll’s two villages. The greatest loss was in labour. After the cyclone, the government evacuated more than half the atoll’s population, and many people never went home. Still, farmers may have been able to bounce back were it not for two additional disasters. The summer of 2000 was unusually hot. A warm, chock-full lagoon created conditions ripe for a Vibrio harveyi outbreak, or the proliferation of a naturally-occurring bacterium so drastic that it choked 70 per cent of Manihiki’s cultured oysters.

“The Vibrio affected everybody,” says Yves Tchen Pan, who still has a farm in Manihiki’s lagoon and travels annually to the Cook Islands. “It took years to recover.”

Farmers had no choice but to kill their infected shells and wait for the next harvest. The neighbouring islands of Penrhyn and Rakahanga closed their industries for good. Many Manihiki farmers shut the doors of their seeding houses for the last time, and moved overseas. For the farmers that chose to hold on, things would only get worse. The global financial crisis shrivelled big buyer markets, and the price of pearls fell drastically.

French Polynesia, which has regular flights to consumer countries and atolls with larger lagoons, stepped in to supply the international demand, and Cook Islands farmers fell behind. More farms folded.

Some held on, emerging bruised and battered but buoyant. Today, a core of Manihiki farmers continue to supply Rarotonga’s shops and the Cook Islands’ export markets with black-lip pearls. About 21 farms are actively producing pearls. Resilient farmers are working hard to nurse the industry back to robust health.

“I’ve learned a lot from the past,” says Kora, a pearl farmer and president of the Manihiki Pearl Farmers Association. “I think we should’ve had a form of management plan in place during the early days but I think the community and the industry didn’t see a need at the time because they were fetching $200 a piece so why worry about that then?… Today I’m doing something different.”

Today, the Ministry of Marine Resources employs a pearl biologist to live on Manihiki and monitor and facilitate pearl production. A Lagoon Management Plan governs all farming activity, and improved technology makes information about sea temperatures and oyster health more readily accessible. In 2011, the New Zealand government donated $1.7 million to Manihiki’s pearl industry. Many farmers and retailers are confident the industry can recover. They believe the glory days aren’t over yet.

“I’ve never reached where I am today in the past,” Kora says. “That’s telling me I can actually overcome the past. We can take it to another level, beyond where we were in the 80s.”

Black Pearls
A typical kaoa
Extracting the mantle
Seeding the oyster
Returning cleaned oysters to the lagoon
Extracting a pearl
Cleaning oysters underwater