Pearls Be Dammed

September 1998

Gemstones & Pearls:News

Pearls Be Dammed

The Three Gorges reservoir in China could affect freshwater pearl culture

Nobody can predict the environmental consequences of the Three Gorges dam, the world's largest, now being constructed along the Yangtze River in central China, but there's one certainty: China will never be the same after the project is completed in 2009.

China is building the dam to reduce floods and generate some 84 billion kilowatt-hours of hydroelectric power annually. The dam will create a 375-mile-long reservoir that will submerge nearby communities, forcing the relocation of 1.2 million people and altering the local environment.

The Chinese freshwater pearl industry is centered far downstream, primarily in shallow lakes and streams near the Shanghai delta. But some feel the wetlands downstream will not be immune to the dam's impact.

"The water temperature will greatly fluctuate as the dam's gates open and close," says Doris Shen of the International Rivers Network, a group in Berkeley, CA, that is working to stop foreign funding of the project. "It will change the sediment flow and cause a great deal of water pollution. While there's no definite answer as to how it will affect [industries] downstream, there's no way it can be positive."

One Hong Kong-based pearl manufacturer says she hopes the project will stabilize the water level and reduce the summer flooding that plagues pearl farmers. Shen worries, however, that if the dam's priority is to create electricity, the necessary storing and releasing of water will worsen the flooding.

In the worst case, this could mean hard times ahead for pearl mussels, which thrive on constant climate and water conditions. The mussels also attach themselves to certain kinds of fish as they grow; the dam is expected to wipe out 175 species of fish.

However, freshwater pearl farming is so widespread in China – popping up randomly in rice paddies, ponds and creeks – that some feel the industry can relocate. Any change also may reduce the overproduction that is keeping prices low. Farmers are addressing this problem already by concentrating on bigger, rounder pearls and cutting this year's harvest production nearly in half.

Some also think China may seek an excuse to focus attention on akoya farming along the southern coast. "The net profit realization is so much greater per momme," says R.D. Torrey, editor of the newsletter Pearl World."And the government still doesn't have control over [the freshwater pearl] industry it wants."

– by Stacey King

Copyright © 1998 by Bond Communications.


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