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‘If Tahiti can do it, why not us?’

By Giff Johnson MAJURO, Marshall Islands (Marianas Variety, Sept. 1, 2010) - The first pearl harvest in the Marshall Islands in five years has stimulated renewed interest among leaders on remote outer islands that the industry remains viable.

The harvest this week from Rongelap Atoll of 1,300 pearls valued at about US$20,000 is small compared to the multi-million-dollar export industries in French Polynesia and the Cook Islands.

But black lip pearl oyster expert Tyrone Tapu, who manages his own pearl farm on Apataki Atoll in French Polynesia, said he was impressed with the small harvest at Rongelap.

"When I did the grafting of the oysters a year and a half ago at Rongelap, there were not so many oysters and not much choice for colors," he said in Majuro. "Looking at the (range of) colors from the harvest, they are surprisingly good. These have the same colors as at my farm."

Tapu has assisted with seeding and grafting pearl oysters in the Marshall Islands for years and says the lagoons in this north Pacific nation are excellent for growing pearls.

"If Tahiti can do it, why not us?" said Rongelap Mayor James Matayoshi, who has overseen the three-year project of growing the oysters in the remote atoll that was doused with radioactive fallout from the 1954 Bravo hydrogen bomb test at Bikini. Matayoshi launched the pearl growing project to develop job opportunities for Rongelap islanders as part of a long-term plan to rehabilitate the atoll and return the population that evacuated the area in 1985.

"I’m very excited by this harvest," said Mattlan Zackhras, the Minister of Resources and Development who represents Namdrik Atoll, location of one of the first, but now dysfunctional, pearl farms in the Marshall Islands.

"It is a pilot project for local governments trying to revive the industry," he said. "It shows it can be done."

The problem for expanding the local pearl oyster farms is lack of "spat," the baby oysters.

Zackhras said the College of the Marshall Islands, which has been assisting Rongelap and other islands to develop pearl farms, has the ability to produce spat. "The college is bringing in a new extension agent to focus on aquaculture," Zackhras said, adding this is expected to give a boost to outer islands pearl farming.

"We (Namdrik) are piggybacking on Rongelap to see if we can help each other," said Zackhras.

Local business Robert Reimers Enterprises ran initially successful pearl farms in two remote atolls during the late 1990s and early 2000s before calling it quits several years ago in the face of high operations costs.

[PIR editor’s note: Yokwe Online reports that the pioneering black pearl industry that had shut down in 2002 was harvesting during its peak between "1,000 to 5,000 black pearls from its Arno and Jaluit farms."]

Matayoshi said his local government is investing in expansion and pursuing grants to build infrastructure, including a hatchery, to expand farming operations. To be economically viable, the farm needs to be producing 50,000 pearls each harvest. "It’s a lot of work, but we have trained our staff at Rongelap — the knowledge is there," Matayoshi said.

Matayoshi is keen to involve local college students in what he calls "value adding" for the pearls. "I want to have the students make jewelry with these pearls," he said. "It’s another way to create jobs for crafters."

Tapu said the oysters at Rongelap will produce three-to-four pearls each.

"There will be another harvest in 2011 with the 1,000 oysters still growing at Rongelap," he said.

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