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By Jason Brown Pacific Magazine Cook Islands Correspondent

AVARUA, Rarotonga, Cook Islands (April 4, 2001 - Pacific Magazine/PINA Nius Online)---In February, Cook Islanders got an indication of just how big black pearls are to their economy--in ways they probably would rather not have known about.

Statistics watchers gaped when the latest quarterly bulletin came out, showing export figures for 2000. There, under values of principal exports, stood the figure of NZ$ 18,395,000 for pearl exports, about US$ 9 million. This is more than three times as much as the year before, when exporters reported NZ$ 5,342,000 or US$ 2.5 million. The growth is even more incredible when compared with 1996 when just NZ$ 1,473,000 in pearl exports were declared.

This seemingly explosive growth was a surprise to all but the pearl industry itself. Many insiders had long suspected pearl farmers of producing far more than reported figures.

One retailer suggested that the industry may be worth as much as US$ 100 million to the local economy, although this seems fairly unlikely, given that much bigger pearl farms next door in French Polynesia produce exports of around US$ 200 million.

In the tiny economy of the Cook Islands, however, even US$ 9 million is big news. Pearls absolutely dominate exports, with all others, including papayas, aquarium fish and clothing, barely scraping up US$ 1 million. The Bureau of Statistics' latest figures also end years of debate about whether pearls or offshore banking is the country's second biggest domestic industry after tourism.

With offshore representatives themselves claiming no more than US$ 5 million input into the economy--US$ 1.5 million direct to government--black pearls are far and away the next biggest. Declared gross turnover in the Cooks for last year is US$ 172 million, most of it booming tourism, with imports increasing 42% to US$ 55 million at the same time.

One reason for the sudden leap in pearl export figures has been an increasing number of pearl wholesalers getting busted for undeclared gems by overseas customs officers. Some seizures have been in the hundreds of thousands of American dollars, prompting frantic calls to home banks to arrange urgent overdrafts to clear their pearls from bond. Now many pearl dealers are seeking customs declarations at home in the Cooks before flying overseas to hand picked buyers. This gives them an official bit of paper to wave when they arrive at overseas airports, usually Auckland, Nadi or Honolulu.

Cook Islanders got their second reminder of the size of the country's pearl industry soon after the statistics were released. Losses from an outbreak of a bacterial pearl shell disease would reach $NZ 34 million over the next five years, according to an estimate from a regional aquaculture specialist.

"We think it will take about five years before the industry recovers itself to the same levels of production, had this disease not occurred," said Ben Ponia, a Cook Islander who was with Marine Resources before taking up a position with the Pacific Community in Nouméa last year. His former ministry flew him back to take part in an emergency review of the country's main pearl farming atoll, Manihiki, where the disease outbreak happened.

"Over the next five years, this could lead to an estimated loss of pearl production of about $NZ 34 million," estimates Ponia. Pearls near maturity were not affected by the disease but more than half of the spat and young shells were wiped out. Harvests would not be affected until next year, said one farmer, Raymond Newnham.

Suspected causes of the outbreak centered on a simple fact of life for farmers. Don't get greedy: space your crops. Overcrowded parts of the lagoon bred disease hotspots that spread to the rest of the farms, made up of floats and underwater ropes around kaua, or islets.

After the disease was reported to Marine Resources, Secretary Navy Epati, long-time Samoan resident, praised farmers for responding quickly to emergency measures.

Immediate steps included dropping lines of cultured pearl shells to deeper, cooler depths. Farmers ripped out damaged and dead pearl shells. They stopped cleaning shells, which usually grow better without incrustation.

Long term? Ponia says the problem is not with the overall number of pearl producing shells, estimated to be around 1.5 million at the time of the disease outbreak. Indeed, he estimates the lagoon could support as many as four million shells. The answer, says Ponia, lies in marrying old-fashioned husbandry with 20th century technology.

He recommends drawing up the lagoon and the farms into 499 "grids" of 220 square meters, each containing an average of 8,000 shells. Grids would be laid down by reading from Global Positioning Satellite devices. In an industry that once saw Manihiki pearl farmers as the cowboys of the north, complete in some cases with rifles, the disease outbreak has scared more cooperation into the atoll in the last few months than probably the previous 20 years.

Epati says the big lesson to be learned from the disease outbreak was that the environment must come before development. "Manihiki has shown us that if you don't look after the environment it bites back big time. Then it will collapse."

Continues Epati: "There is no longer an environment versus development debate. That was back in the 1980s. Today, only a fool debates development against the environment.

Manihiki's pearl scare provided unexpected ammunition for environmentalists opposed to government plans to sell farming rights to Suwarrow, an uninhabited atoll south of Manihiki with an even bigger lagoon. But Suwarrow has been identified by world authorities like BirdLife International and World Wide Fund for Nature as one of the region's vital bird colonies.

The government should prove its ability to manage the environment sustainably before seeking to develop other islands, say local environment groups. Last December's disease outbreak was the second big blow for Manihiki in recent years. On the first day of the hurricane season of November 1997, cyclone Martin smashed huge waves through the villages and lagoon of Manihiki. Twenty died. Luckily for the atoll, almost all of the pearls, shells and spat survived undamaged underwater.

Now, between increasingly beady eyed custom officers and formerly greedy farmers, the black pearl industry of the Cook Islands is having to work hard to make sure it survives man-made disasters as well.

With other Pacific nations from Micronesia to Melanesia beginning to look at black pearl farming, the Manihiki lesson is one others might do well to learn from too.

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