Pearls just may be the most sustainable gems in the world. You see, oysters need pristine water conditions to produce high-quality pearls. Any decline in water quality directly impacts oyster health, resulting in poorer pearl quality and increased oyster mortality. Thus, pearl farmers are naturally also sea stewards in order to protect their investment.
Nowhere is that more apparent than in Fiji, where a burgeoning pearl industry is changing the vulnerable coral and coastal habitat, benefitting the community both economically and environmentally. Very few products, especially in the luxury market, make such an impact on conservation. These Fijian pearls stand out from Tahitian and Akoya counterparts for their kaleidoscope of colors, a result of the Fijian pearl oyster's unique mantle. You can find these pearls in shades of aubergine, peacock, pistachio, chocolate, gold and black distributed in Europe through Gellner and more recently Assael in New York.
Justin Hunter founded J. Hunter Pearls in 2000 after getting his marine biology degree and working in the family business raising edible oysters in Washington and Hawaii. Hunter grew up in Savusavu, and succeeded where others failed before thanks to his background in aquaculture.
“I would love to see a shift in how pearls are viewed and what they can represent to our people and countries,” Hunter said. “We would like to create not only awareness but also change the pearl industry so that responsible producers and their products are recognized.” Last June, at the UN Oceans Conference in New York, Hunter presented the Fiji Pearl Development plan with Fiji's prime minister and minister of fisheries as a public-private partnership advancing one of Fiji's voluntary commitments towards sustainable development.
Savusavu, where J. Hunter Pearls is based, is representative of many rural indigenous communities in Fiji. The landscape is absolutely stunning, but many families maintain gardens for subsistence farming and the economic opportunities in this small town of less than 4,000 people are few and far between, although “Fiji's hidden paradise” is becoming a more popular destination for Australian, American and European visitors. Guests staying at Jean-Michel Cousteau Resort can arrange to visit J. Hunter Pearls headquarters and take a private boat tour and even go snorkeling by the hatcheries.
It's here that I meet Rynae Lanyon, the 25-year old marine biologist who is overseeing the oyster hatcheries and spat collector grids, where wild oysters are collected for implantation. Lanyon is currently working on her master's degree in Suva, writing a thesis on the cycle of phytoplankton blooms and their effect on the health of oysters. “The hatchery not only provides us with the oysters we need for implant each year but it also relieves the pressure on natural, or wild, stock,” she explains. “In this way, we are not overexploiting our marine resources. In fact, we are adding to the population of oysters we have in our bay which increases the chances of having a clean ocean as these oysters filter and clean the waters.”
The hatchery spawns and raises two species of oysters and they also established a giant clam reserve in 2016 which is a sanctuary for four of the 12 species found in the world, including the endangered Tridacna gigas which can weigh up to 660 pounds. Hatchery produced seeds are supplied to local communities to assist in restocking the coral reefs and preserving the biodiversity of the oceans.
“Working in a male-dominated field, I am showing the young girls in my community that anything is possible with hard work and commitment,” Lanyon says. “I hope they will have the confidence to put themselves out there and take the lead even if it means been the only female leader amongst males.”
J. Hunter Pearls works with nine community-owned pearl farms in Fiji, including its largest site in Savusavu Bay, employing locals in nine different villages and creating micro-businesses in these under-developed rural areas. During harvest, this includes well-paid seasonal work for youth in addition to the company's 50 full-time employees. This new source of income reduces pressure on Fiji's endangered reef fish stocks. “Poverty is the greatest threat to our environment,” Hunter explains. “Only through job creation and education can we create a culture of resource preservation rather than resource extraction.” He is mindful that luxury is about quality, rarity and exclusivity, so growth does not necessarily mean more pearls. “Our focus is primarily on increasing the quality we produce and working closely with our people and distributors to maximize the benefits to Fiji and our people.”