Marine pearls in the Gulf of Tonkin

Pearls in the Gulf of Tonkin

Pearl seeding platforms near Beihai, China. Platforms where pearl nuclei are inserted into oysters are situated near net immersion sites to reduce mortality. Photo by Saleem H. Ali

Guest post by Saleem Ali of University of Vermont (USA) 

Gemstones have been a seminal part of Chinese culture for millennia. Although jade retains the highest pedestal in Chinese folklore as the “stone of heaven”, pearls have also been an important part of imperial China’s jewelled past. In Chinese folklore, pearls were referred to as “tears of the dragon,” and this metaphor is apt for the tale of maritime pearl farming in the Gulf of Tonkin.

The northern part of Guangxi Zhuang Autonomous Region is best known internationally for its fabulous karst landscape with the iconic steep undulating hills that often form the backdrop of many Chinese paintings. Yet the southern coast of this province also offers many treasures to the attentive visitor. The region is named for the Zhuang ethnic group which form around 40% of the population of this region (one of five ‘autonomous’ regions in China: the other four being Tibet, Xinjiang, Ningxia and Inner Mongolia).

The coastal city of Beihai was historically the pearling center of China and also a major trading center for the “marine silk road.” The neighboring inland city of Hepu is considered by the Chinese to be the epicentre of the pearling trade in ancient China, but much of the commerce and tourism development has moved to Beihai due to its coastal location. The old part of Beihai town has many decaying buildings with colonial architecture from its trading heyday in the nineteenth century when the city even boasted an American consulate.

Today this city of over a million inhabitants reflects the same developmental aspirations as many other parts of China, with a massive real-estate boom and a drive to attract industrial investment. Of particular note has been the move to build an oil refinery near the border with its prosperous provincial neighbor, Guangdong. The Beihai government insists that the new oil refinery will be of much higher environmental standards and would not pose a threat to the remaining pearl farm which is run by Dongyuan Pearling properties limited. This is a company with a diversified business model as well ranging from catering to farming to jewelry manufacturing. Pearlers in China have shown remarkable adaptability.

Another company, Beihai Yuanlong pearls, has invested in pearl farms in The Philippines and in Indonesia where waters are relatively cleaner and suitable for oyster production. They have also diversified their product base from oysters to beyond just gem-quality pearls in order to provide more resilience to their economic model. Cosmetics from pearl powder remain the most popular by-product, but there are also efforts to more effectively utilise the oyster meat and shells even when gem-quality pearls are not harvestable from the poorer water quality. Pearl oysters are not always the most palatable but are edible and restaurants may serve the meat from the products. Beihai Zhenyuan Marine Biological Limited is also using dried oysters to make culinary products and fractional distillation of organic acids (derivative of bile acids such as taurocholic acid) used in natural products healthcare.

Although China’s freshwater pearling sector has boomed for many years in the provinces surrounding Shanghai (acquiring a 90% global dominance in the market), the marine pearl sector has waned dramatically. Though Beihai still attracts tourists from within China and from neighbouring Vietnam owing to its fame as a pearling center, the pearl traders are forced to sell imported pearls because of the closure of pearl farms in these coastal environs have closed, largely due to oyster mortality caused by pollution.

As China aspires to develop its tourism potential as well as its quest for sustainable livelihoods, marine pearl farming deserves greater attention. This is an industry which can have a considerable multiplier effect on tourism and other service sectors while also creating inherent economic incentives for environmental conservation. The siting of industrial facilities should consider existing livelihoods in coastal areas, since there is likely to be more flexibility with siting a factory than with siting a pearl farm that is highly sensitive to water temperature, salinity, depth and chemical profile.

Gazing across the horizon from Beihai beach one can only hope that pearls might provide a parable for the Chinese authorities to moderate their alacrity for conventional industrialization with greater care for competing sustainable enterprises.

This post was first published on National Geographic. It is reproduced here with permission of the author, who made a field visit to Guangxi, China in June 2012 as part of a broader research project on sustainability in the pearl farming sector supported by the Tiffany & Co. Foundation. Special thanks to the Guangxi Academy of Social Sciences (particularly Xiaoqing Huang and Hongsheng Chen) for facilitating my visit. The Beihai government agencies, particularly the foreign affairs office of Beihai, the fisheries station (especially Zou Jianwei of the animal husbandry and aquatic products bureau) and the pearl companies mentioned in the article for their cooperation in this research visit.