I get this question a lot, and it is an important one to consider: Do the pearl farms kill the oyster?
A Visit to Perlas del Mar de Cortez, a Pearl Farm in Mexico
Quick fact: They are not really oysters. After visiting this pearl farm in Mexico (which marks my 8th unique pearl farm visit) I can confirm that every single pearl farm does something different from the other. It continues to amaze me how the practices of one farm do not necessarily translate to the unique environment of another farm! And the same is true when it comes to the life of the pearl bearing oyster. Does the pearl farm kill the oyster? Does the oyster die when the pearl is harvested? It depends!
Speaking of Mexico, here’s a fun fact: Mexico actually had the first pearl farm in the world! The Sea of Cortez pearl farm does in fact kill its stock of Pteria Sterna when they harvest the pearls. However, this is because the oysters are actually at the end of their lifespans. The Pteria Sterna has a natural lifespan of only five years, surprisingly short compared to most bivalve mollusks! (At least the mollusks I have seen in other pearl farms.) And this five years is a best case scenario.
Oysters Eat Their Young? (Sometimes, Accidentally)
I remember when I visited an oyster hatchery in The Philippines. There, the pearl farmers placed male and female mollusks in a tank together to engage in their unique form of reproduction. After that, they must be removed promptly enough so they do not accidentally eat the baby oysters! They are filter feeders, after all, continuously sucking in and expelling water. They may just accidentally suck in the fertilized eggs! So, imagine in the great big ocean, millions of baby mollusks never get a chance at life because Mom or Dad ate them!
Of all the young Pteria Sterna, only 35% of the population actually live to 5 years. The other 65% fall prey to predators. So, most of the population that has the potential to produce pearls might not live to harvest if they were not raised in their nets.
Sustainability & Long Lives for the Oysters
So, the Pteria Sterna are collected from the wild (no hatcheries for these Mexican mollusks!) and raised for 2 years until they are mature enough to be nucleated for pearls. After nucleation the Pteria Sterna spend the next 18 months to 2 years of their life growing a pearl. During that time they have ample opportunities to breed and reproduce. The Sea of Cortez farm is committed to sustainable and ethical practices.
So, short answer once again. Yes, in Mexico they kill the mollusk after it produces a pearl. Would it have lived as long otherwise? Probably not! Did it have a positive impact on the water and environment while it lived? Absolutely! And finally, what do they do with the dead mollusk? Well, they eat the mussel meat and use the shell, so nothing is wasted from this process.
I am a modern day treasure hunter who travels the world for gorgeous pearls and amazing adventures. I own a pearl jewelry and jewelry repair business, ThePearlGirls.com, with a cute retail store in Athens, GA. I also have a Pearl Travel business and travel blog at TheWorldofPearl.com.