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Sustainable Pearls of Wisdom

Success Stories 24 Aug 2018

Intent on keeping the marine environment of Savusavu Bay in Fiji in pristine condition while developing a sustainable pearl industry in Fiji with emerging pearl farmers, Justin Hunter (pictured above on the left) of J Hunter Pearls Fiji has provided much needed jobs for locals since 1999, along with the resources to improve their villages and way of life.

Born to an American father and Fijian mother, Justin grew up in the small Fijian town of Savusavu, where his love for island life and the ocean began.

As a young man, he moved to the United States to attend high school and university, where he attained a BS – Bachelor of Science - in Marine Biology at Seattle Pacific University.

While he went on to work in aquaculture “all over the place”, Justin didn’t take long to realise he wanted to go back and work in his home country.

“Like many of us who go out into the real big world, it doesn’t take us long to realise how great our home of Fiji is,” he says.

“I think we all know coming back to Fiji is always better than leaving Fiji.”

Justin returned, not just out of nostalgia, but with a dream of growing the world’s best pearls in a way that was sustainable and beneficial to his people.

He was working for his father’s family business, Taylor Shellfish, rearing edible oysters in Washington State and Hawaii. It reaffirmed his desire towards responsible pearl farming.

“I was fortunate to work in setting up a nursery hatchery facility for Taylor Shellfish farms based on the west coast of US,” Justin recalls.

“There was a lot of other research going on all around me, including shrimp culture with Dr James Wyban, Jerry Hesling and a couple of parties that were working on pearl oyster hatchery techniques.

“That was my ‘a-ha moment’. While I chose pearls, my experience of working with those people increased my passion for the potential of marine aquaculture in the South Pacific.”

But his business suffered a savage blow when Cyclone Winston struck Fiji and neighbouring areas in February 2016. A 10-minute sustained wind of 280kmph created the most intense tropical cyclone in the Southern Hemisphere on record.

“We literally lost millions of dollars in infrastructure and many millions more with the loss of biological assets. These days, we are simply not producing as many pearls because so many of our young shells died,” says Justin, who was nevertheless grateful to have survived, considering 44 lives were lost and more than $2NZD billion of damage was caused.

Initially, Justin looked at other business options. At the end of the day, however, he didn’t have the heart to give up, not when his staff and locals depended on the business.

“It was very hard and I was looking at options, including exiting the industry,” he recalls.

“But I just couldn’t leave my staff and, ultimately, what the pearls represented to our rural economy and people. At the time of Winston, we had 51 staff. I’m proud to stay we still have 51 today … maybe a few more. While it’s still hard, I guess I’m now on a bit of a mission to share this story.”

And also to share the Blue Pledge mission which, together with pearling companies Paspaley (from Australia) and Jewelmer (the Philippines), brings together pearl farmers who seek to contribute to the health of the oceans and climate. It does this through implementing and highlighting best practices in preserving marine environments and working with communities.

“What I’ve learned and truly believe is that when you buy a Fiji Pearl or a Pearl from the ‘Blue Pledge’ members, you’re investing not just in our oceans, but the health of our entire planet,” says Justin.

“Because Pearling can play a major role in creating what is termed a sustainable blue economy.”

What is a pearl?

Officially the world’s oldest gem, pearls have been revered long before written history. It is believed they were first discovered by people searching for food along the seashore. They have been worn as a form of adornment for millennia thanks to a fragment of pearl jewellery found in the sarcophagus of a Persian princess that dates back to 420 BC, is now on display at the Louvre in Paris.

Pearls were presented as gifts to Chinese royalty as early as 2300 BC, while in ancient Rome, pearl jewellery was considered the ultimate status symbol. So precious were the spherical gems that in the 1st century BC, Julius Caesar passed a law limiting the wearing of pearls only to the ruling classes. In 1893 Kokichi Mikimoto, the son of a Japanese noodle maker, created the world's first cultured pearl by manually introducing an irritant into an oyster to stimulate it to form a pearl. Since then the production of cultured pearls has grown into a worldwide industry.