The Akoya pearl oyster (Pinctada imbricata) has been fished for pearls for centuries and is amongst the most widespread of the pearl oyster species. Akoya oysters are found on areas of the eastern coastline of North and South America, the east-coast of Africa, the Mediterranean and throughout the Indo-Pacific. Most notably, the Akoya oyster is found in Japan, where it has formed the basis of a multi-million dollar pearling industry.
Recently, a dramatic decline in Japanese pearl production, resulting from a variety of factors including disease, has created an opportunity for NSW to enter the industry. The Akoya oyster is found along much of the NSW coast including the Port Stephens area.
In the early 1990’s, a pearling company began investigating the possibility of establishing a temperate pearl oyster farming industry in NSW. This company, with the assistance of the Australian Museum, located and surveyed populations of Akoya oysters in NSW that they believed could form the basis for a pearl farming industry. The company then approached NSW DPI to conduct the next phase of research, which was to evaluate survival, growth and nacre deposition in this species in NSW waters, primarily Port Stephens. This research was considered consistent with the Department’s corporate vision to promote sustainable aquaculture industries and to develop commercial opportunities in aquaculture.
NSW DPI subsequently obtained four deepwater lease sites with a total area of 28 ha in Port Stephens, each chosen specifically for pearl culture. The department then called for expressions of interest in a joint venture to evaluate the possibility of pearl culture in Port Stephens and Australian Radiata Pty. Ltd, was selected as the most suitable commercial partner in this research.
Currently, NSW DPI monitors both farmed and natural stocks of pearl oysters throughout the state. While the bulk of experimental farming activity is in Port Stephens, oysters are held at a more than a dozen sites where their growth, survival and nacre quality are regularly checked. At the major farming sites, the environment surrounding the farms is monitored to ensure that no damage to the environment is occurring. Researchers are also following the reproductive condition of wild pearl oysters and deploy collectors at regular intervals to determine the timing, duration and intensity of natural recruitment. Information gathered from the wild stocks, in conjunction with the results from laboratory trials, is being used to assist in judging the suitability of pearl farming sites and in production of the pearl oyster spat necessary to establish an industry.
Results to date have been encouraging. Trial pearl harvests in Port Stephens have demonstrated the quality of pearls that can be produced. Commercial Pearl cultivation is approved in Port Stephens and a number of NSW estuaries.