While alarming headlines about land-based heat waves, forest fires, and floods continue to fuel the public’s fear, anger and protests against climate change, its impact on our ocean has received far less attention. Hoping to spark anger and political action to fight our climate crisis at sea, environmentalists and eco-friendly business leaders in the jewelry industry hope the inspiring story of pearl farmers becomes a catalyst for change.
Los Angeles, CA—“Beautiful”, Inspiring” “Like walking on the moon”- evocative phrases most of us would not use to describe our workplace. But for Celeste Brash and her family, these words paint an accurate picture of their job beneath the sea as pearl farmers. Like harvesting grapes from underwater grapevines, Brash routinely dives into clear blue waters to nurture her family’s underwater stock of pearl-growing oysters. Her farm, Kamoka Pearls, located on a small French Polynesian island 300 miles Northeast of Tahiti, is one of thousands of pearl farms worldwide.
To succeed, these undersea farmers must grow their aquatic crop in pristine, delicate waters, an environment they’re so dedicated to protect, many have adopted rules that do more than sustain their environment (“sustainability” is a set of policies many companies adopt to make sure their manufacturing and business practices do not harm local wildlife and have a neutral impact). The policy at Kamoka Pearls, by contrast, something the family proudly calls “Beyond Sustainability”, is a commitment to adopt business practices that actually improve local water, land and sea life, making the ecosystem better than it was when they started their business. Brash and her family put their policy to work by integrating solar and wind technologies to power all electricity used on their farm. They also clean oysters naturally, using fish instead of hoses to clean oyster shells. To quench the thirst of all humans and land-based animals on their farm, they use only rainwater, no groundwater. Finally, to sustain the indigenous work force of local Tahitians they pay fair market wages.
Does it work? As documented by a team of scientists from National Geographic, the farm’s “Beyond Sustainability” policy has succeeded in making the island and lagoon where the family lives and works a better environment for all local land and sea life. One metric their particularly proud of – an increase in the health and number of fish species in the ocean waters where Kamoka Farm pearls are cultivated. “The ocean is everything to us!” said Brash. “It surrounds us. It feeds us. It provides us our livelihood and constantly fills us with a state of wonder. Every day, we’re driven by a reality that, sadly, not many humans ever consider—we’re not the only ones who rely on our ocean to survive.”
The emotional connection Brash and other pearl farmers have with their local waters has inspired eco-friendly CEOs throughout the jewelry industry including Kevin Canning, Founder of Peals of Joy, a socially-conscious jeweler that includes environment protection measures in a direct-to-consumer business model. Canning, who already donates a portion of his company’s profits to ocean-protecting causes, has visited pearl farms throughout the world and has seen first-hand the care and emotional connection pearl farmers have with the ocean. With every dive beneath the oceans’ surface, pearl farmers move slowly, adopting the same underwater rhythms as the tide, so their dive has virtually no impact on the delicate marine life they must maintain to ensure their pearls are perfect. It’s a visual and a commitment to the environment that inspires Canning every time he sees it. It’s so inspiring, in fact, that Canning wants to share their story with a global audience of people who may, for now, not care about climate change or the fate of our oceans. But he believes their dispassionate opinion of these topics may change and pearl farmers may be the catalyst of that change.
“Pearl farmers are the unsung heroes in the fight to save our oceans.” said Canning, who has been frustrated by a steady stream of news stories about the land-based hallmarks of pollution and global warming, including wildfires and drought, but few stories about the effects of pollution and climate change on our ocean. “70% of the earth’s surface is water and the threats to our seas are just as grave as the threats to our lands”, said Canning. “The public needs to know about these threats and they need to celebrate the heroes who fight to protect our ocean.”
According to marine biologists, pearl farms area barometer of climate change. Similar to the proverbial “canary in the coal mine”, the health of pearl-producing oysters is an early warning signs of the long-term effects of pollution and global warming. “The story of pearls is the story of our oceans,” said Laurent Cartier, a scientist and industry expert. “If people who buy pearls consider the delicate-environment they came from, they’ll hopefully appreciate the work of farmers who toil every day against great odds to maintain perfect ecosystems needed to create perfect pearls.”
As humans continue dumping, pumping and spilling pollutants into our ecosystems (oil spills and discarded plastics are the biggest problems), marine life suffers. A recent report from the Convention on Biological Diversity found that the number of species affected by marine debris has risen to 817; that’s 817 ocean-dwelling plants and animals that ingest garbage, get entangled in plastic and are displaced when their habitats are destroyed.
The second greatest threat to our ocean is also man-made. Greenhouse gas emissions which do much more than warm the atmosphere. They make our seas hotter, melt glaciers and raise sea levels, a deadly combination expected to fuel more cyclones and floods in 2020, endangering the lives of millions of people living along coastlines worldwide. For fish, oysters and other sea life, warmer waters where oysters are raised will become more acidic and less oxygen-rich, making it more difficult for mussels, clams and oysters to form shells. This will decrease their likelihood of survival, upsetting the food chain and impacting the multibillion-dollar shellfish industry.
Yet despite this dire assessment, Canning remains optimistic. Why? Because of predictions maintained by many climate scientists that we have not yet reached a point of no return, the tipping point when no amount of austere climate-saving measures, by government or industry, can slow down the rise in global temperatures and their disastrous effects on our environment.
While some of the biggest changes to address global warming must happen at a national, government levels, Canning encourages all of us to think like pearl farmers by making a practical commitment to minimize our carbon footprint and a philosophical commitment to protect the delicate, fragile balance of the ecosystem we share with others. Additional eco-friendly steps Canning suggests — including edits to our general lifestyle and edits to our shopping habits when we buy jewelry — include:
1-Eat Sustainable Seafood– Global fisheries are on the verge of collapse. According to the U.N. Food and Agriculture Organization (FAO), three quarters of the world’s fisheries are now overexploited, fully exploited, significantly depleted or recovering from overexploitation. Carry a sustainable seafood card and ask your seafood restaurant or fish market to buy from sustainable fisheries. Look for special terms like "line caught", "diver caught", "sustainably caught" or "sustainably harvested.
2-Shop Ethically and Sustainably– If you’re shopping for a diamond engagement ring, consider laboratory-grown diamonds which are virtually identical in cut and quality to traditional mined diamonds but have a significantly lower impact on the environment. Marine-cultured pearls, like those harvested by farmers at Kamoka Pearls near Tahiti, are raised on sustainable farms, qualifying them as “ethical jewelry” (a popular term among millennial shoppers). Of course, this moral principle can be applied to your entire shopping experience. Before every item of jewelry or article of clothing is purchased, retailers should be asked to confirm the item was not produced through unsustainable or environmentally harmful methods. For example, eco-friendly jewelers encourage shoppers to avoid cosmetics containing shark Squalene and jewelry made of coral or sea turtle shell. These products are directly linked to unsustainable fishing methods and the destruction of entire ecosystems. Ethical companies will have nothing to hide so be sure to ask.
3-Choose Quality over Fast Fashion– Instead of cheap, knock off, disposable jewelry, choose a few high-quality classic pieces that will stand the test of time. As consumers, we should care more about the craftsmanship, sentimentality, history and the unique market value of the precious metal, stone or pearls in our jewelry. If our purchase is driven by quality, we’ll have sustainable jewelry we’ll want to wear for 10, 20, or 30 years and pass it down for generations to come.
4-Opt for Recycled Metals & Gems – It’s not that common yet, but more and more jewelry brands are choosing to work with recycled materials. In fact, in 2020 more manufacturers are switching to recycled metals, gold and gemstones than ever before. They're essentially taking old jewelry, melting it down to the raw materials it was made of and re-using those materials to create something new and fashionable to environmentally-conscious buyers. If you buy eco-friendly, sustainable jewelry in 2020 and beyond, ask your local jewelry stores if they sell earrings, necklaces, or rings made from recycled materials. By doing so, you will play a role in driving the future of fashion.
5-Choose Brands that Give Back– Research shows that 88% of consumers want brands to help them be more environmentally friendly. Yet, fashion is notorious for its wasteful practices that are hurting the environment. Fortunately this is changing as brands become more and more socially aware, it’s becoming common place to see them supporting causes related to their product, including organizations that protect of our oceans. Supporting brands trying to make a difference is one way to vote with your dollar so before you buy any jewelry, research the brand to make sure the company is giving back to the environment in a measurable way.
6-Reduce Your Carbon Foot print – – Besides changing your diet (#2 above), here are some additional steps you can take to reduce your carbon footprint:
It’s a fact — what you eat, how you travel, how much electricity you use, and other actions you take on a daily basis have a measurable impact on climate change and whether, individually, you’re helping or hurting our oceans. While the six lifestyle goals listed above may seem austere or impractical to some Canning has decided to think like a pearl farmer and embrace them all because of his lifelong love of the ocean.
Jacques Cousteau, the famed oceanographer, filmmaker, and undersea explore, once said: “People protect what they love.” While neither Kevin Canning of Pearls of Joy nor Celeste Brash of Kamoka Pearls expect to see thousands of people change their behavior because of a sudden, newfound love for the ocean, they believe some people will change because of the inexhaustible love they have for their own children. Unless we take drastic measures to protect them, children– who are the least responsible for causing climate change– will inherit a catastrophic legacy we could have prevented but didn’t.