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Pearl farming in Bangladesh

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Naturally, pearls are produced due to the defence mechanism of certain species, like oysters and molluscs. Whenever foreign particles such as sand or parasites enter their body, the fleshy part secretes a liquid called 'nacre,' creating a pearl-like substance. Over time, more layers are created around the irritant particle and thus eventually result in forming a whole pearl.

However, the natural process is hardly used for commercial purposes because it is a rare phenomenon (1 among 10,000). For faster results, some measures need to be taken. 

First, the farmers must choose the right oyster or mussel type. Different types of mussels can form different types of pearls. Some common types are Akoya oysters, freshwater mussels, black-lipped oysters, etc.

In Bangladesh, there are only two genera of freshwater mussels commonly found. Rivers, lakes, ponds, and even the roof-top water tank of any household are also suitable for mussels, but for optimum commercial production, ponds are more efficient. 

Farmers can buy mussels and irritants from local markets. The cost of mussels per piece may vary from Tk 5-6 to Tk 10-15 in different places, whereas the irritant will cost only Tk 3-5. Nonetheless, each pearl can be sold from Tk 150 to 600. Pearl-made jewellery is even more expensive, which may cost around TK 2000-3000 depending on its quality.

Before starting the culture process, one needs to be equipped with proper instruments, such as a shell opener, graft cutter, incision knife, nucleus carrier, graft carrier, spatula with a hook, mussel holder, pincher, graft cutting board, wooden peg, etc. 

At first, a small round irritant, preferably a shell of another mussel, needs to be inserted carefully inside the soft tissue of oysters or molluscs. The irritant will gradually be formed as the nucleus of the pearl. 

After this grafting process, the cultivation period starts. The molluscs will then be sent to their habitats and given just enough time to create the pearl. The total duration of this process can span from a few months to several years. 

But ideally, in Bangladesh, 2.2 years is considered the standard time. During this time, mussels need to be regularly monitored, and the condition of the water body must be maintained to keep it prime for the cultivation process.

After the pearls reach their desired size, shape and quality, they have to be harvested. In this process, the mollusc's shell is opened, and the pearl is extracted carefully. After extraction, the pearls are cleaned and ready for sorting. Sorting depends on surface quality, shape, size, colour and lustre. 

Cultured pearls usually undergo a few more steps, such as bleaching, polishing, etc., to beautify and increase their market value.

Although pearl cultivation may seem an easy task, here are some considerations that need to be made before starting the business:

Firstly, choose the right location and maintain suitable conditions for the water. Stable water is really essential throughout the process. Water temperature, salinity, and water quality significantly impact the growth and health of the mussels. 

Secondly, mussels are very sensitive creatures. If they are not handled with proper care, they can die easily. Then comes the legal requirements and permits to start a business in a particular region. Then, one may do market research to understand the demand for pearl jewellery from the targeted customers.

A full-fledged financial plan covering the initial investment, maintenance, risk management, training, and hiring of farmers would also be helpful in identifying the loopholes of this business. 

In Bangladesh, the gipsies, who traditionally lived on houseboats, initially started the pearl business. The southeastern part of this country, starting from Cumilla to Cox Bazaar, was seen more in pearl farming, and our port city, Chittagong, is well-known for its trade. 

Today, a total of 90 districts and 41 subdistricts are hubs of this business. The natural pink pearl of Bangladesh is famous for its luminous hue.

Bangladesh Fisheries Research Institute (BFRI), headquarters in Mymensingh Sadar, trains farmers on this subject. The training is free of cost and is a three-day-long program. 

BFRI's dedicated research centre for pearls started in 2012 and was fully developed by 2019. To date, the research institute has benefitted around 2000 farmers regarding pearl cultivation, maintenance, and harvesting.

Globally, the Vietnamese, Indian and Chinese pearl markets are more popular because of their bigger size and quality. The Bangladeshi market still has a long way to go. 

Due to the high profitability of the business, our farmers should be encouraged more to be involved in this, eventually creating a bigger, financially independent nation. 

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