Quest for the last of the pearl mussels

This river was once full of precious gems. Now there aren't enough to make a necklace

Pearl fishing is something most people would associate with the tropics, so it might come as a surprise to learn that the exploitation of the freshwater pearl mussel in Britain's chilly rivers has driven the species to the verge of extinction.

Graham Oliver, marine biologist and head of Biodiversity and Systematic Biology at the National Museum of Wales, is calling for a blanket ban on pearl fishing.

"You have to open thousands of mussels to find a gem-quality pearl. While it is possible to do this without killing the mollusc, cowboy fishermen don't even bother to try and return the mussel alive," he said.

"In addition to fishing, juvenile mussels are being suffocated by algae which have increased hugely in quantity because they flourish on the nutrients in the water caused by fertiliser run-off and slurry," he added.

Commercially viable gems have been extracted from the pearl-yielding animal since Roman times. The pearls are produced when an irritant such as a grain of sand enters a mollusc's shell. The creature secretes nacre - mother-of-pearl - to envelop it and prevent irritation.

The pearl fisherman ploughs through the river wearing all-over waders and bearing an ash pole fixed up like a 6ft clothes peg, and carrying a bucket with a glass bottom in his free hand.

He puts the bucket most of the way in the water and sticks the whole of his face in the open end. After that he walks around, chest deep, looking at the river bed, poking his stick around or coming up for air.

The split end of the pole is clamped over the mussel until it is wedged and it can be brought to the surface.

With luck, for the fisherman anyway, the nacre inside has grown into a small ball. Then he has a classic pearl.

Nowadays, pearl fishing is a cottage industry. However legitimate operators, together with ruthless opportunists hoping to cash in on the phenomenon, have all but destroyed the species.

This, despite the Government's decision to strengthen conservation of the pearl mussel earlier this year under the Wildlife and Countryside Act.

The Joint Nature Conservation Committee recommended the changes to John Gummer, the former secretary of state for the environment, last February amid concern about the species.

On the other side of the argument, however, a total ban would threaten the livelihoods of the few who have persisted with this ancient tradition. Graham Oliver acknowledges this, but believes prohibition is the only way in which the freshwater pearl mussel's future can be safeguarded.

"Implementing a complete ban is the only way forward; any other method would be impossible to police. We need to act quickly, research has shown undeniably that heavily fished waters do not recover," he said.

The River Wye, which runs through Mid Wales and Herefordshire, is a prime example of the effects of over-exploitation. In the 1920s it was known to have a thriving population of pearl mussels, but a recent survey commissioned by English Nature recorded only 22.

Adrian Fowles, invertebrate ecologist with the Countryside Council for Wales (CCW), agrees that the prognosis is not good.

"Following a number of studies, the feeling is that the British population is on a knife-edge. The species has a fascinating life cycle - it lives to be a hundred years old, dispersal of the young is achieved when juveniles attach themselves to the gills of passing brown trout, which is an effective means of establishing colonies upstream - I just hope that we are not already too late to save it."

Nerys Lloyd Pierce

Suggested Topics
Voices
Mosul dam was retaken with the help of the US
voicesRobert Fisk: Barack Obama is following the jihadists’ script
Arts and Entertainment
Loaded weapon: drugs have surprise side effects for Scarlett Johansson in Luc Besson’s ‘Lucy’
filmReview: Lucy, Luc Besson's complex thriller
Arts and Entertainment
tvExecutive says content is not 'without any purpose'
News
A cleaner prepares the red carpet for the opening night during the 59th International Cannes Film Festival May 17, 2006 in Cannes, France.
newsPowerful vacuum cleaners to be banned under EU regulations
PROMOTED VIDEO
Have you tried new the Independent Digital Edition apps?
News
ebooksAn evocation of the conflict through the eyes of those who lived through it
Sport
sportLeague Managers' Association had described Malky Mackay texts as 'friendly banter'
News
A polar bear’s diet is rich in seal blubber and half of its own body weight is composed of fat
i100
News
peopleCareer spanned 70 years, including work with Holocaust survivors
News
people
Travel
Flocking round: Beyoncé, Madame Tussauds' latest waxwork, looking fierce in the park
travelIn a digital age when we have more access than ever to the stars, why are waxworks still pulling in crowds?
News
London is the most expensive city in Europe for cultural activities such as ballet
arts
Arts and Entertainment
Jeremy Clarkson has rejected criticisms of his language, according to BBC director of television Danny Cohen
tv
Extras
indybest
Independent
Travel Shop
the manor
Up to 70% off luxury travel
on city breaks Find out more
santorini
Up to 70% off luxury travel
on chic beach resorts Find out more
sardina foodie
Up to 70% off luxury travel
on country retreats Find out more
Have you tried new the Independent Digital Edition apps?
Independent Dating
and  

By clicking 'Search' you
are agreeing to our
Terms of Use.

iJobs Job Widget
iJobs General

Nursery Nurse

£40 per day: Randstad Education Manchester: Nursery Nurse needed in salfordI a...

Nursery Nurse

£25 per day: Randstad Education Manchester: Level 3 Nursery nurse needed in th...

Supply Teaching jobs in Thetford

£21588 - £31566 per annum: Randstad Education Cambridge: Randstad Education ar...

KS1 teachers needed in Peterborough

£110 - £125 per annum: Randstad Education Cambridge: Randstad Education are ur...

Day In a Page

Air strikes? Talk of God? Obama is following the jihadists’ script

Air strikes? Talk of God? Obama is following the jihadists’ script

The President came the nearest he has come yet to rivalling George W Bush’s gormless reaction to 9/11 , says Robert Fisk
Ebola outbreak: Billy Graham’s son declares righteous war on the virus

Billy Graham’s son declares righteous war on Ebola

A Christian charity’s efforts to save missionaries trapped in Africa by the crisis have been justifiably praised. But doubts remain about its evangelical motives
Jeremy Clarkson 'does not see a problem' with his racist language on Top Gear, says BBC

Not even Jeremy Clarkson is bigger than the BBC, says TV boss

Corporation’s head of television confirms ‘Top Gear’ host was warned about racist language
Nick Clegg the movie: Channel 4 to air Coalition drama showing Lib Dem leader's rise

Nick Clegg the movie

Channel 4 to air Coalition drama showing Lib Dem leader's rise
Philip Larkin: Misogynist, racist, miserable? Or caring, playful man who lived for others?

Philip Larkin: What will survive of him?

Larkin's reputation has taken a knocking. But a new book by James Booth argues that the poet was affectionate, witty, entertaining and kind, as hitherto unseen letters, sketches and 'selfies' reveal
Madame Tussauds has shown off its Beyoncé waxwork in Regent's Park - but why is the tourist attraction still pulling in the crowds?

Waxing lyrical

Madame Tussauds has shown off its Beyoncé waxwork in Regent's Park - but why is the tourist attraction still pulling in the crowds?
Texas forensic astronomer finally pinpoints the exact birth of impressionism

Revealed (to the minute)

The precise time when impressionism was born
From slow-roasted to sugar-cured: how to make the most of the British tomato season

Make the most of British tomatoes

The British crop is at its tastiest and most abundant. Sudi Pigott shares her favourite recipes
10 best men's skincare products

Face it: 10 best men's skincare products

Oscar Quine cleanses, tones and moisturises to find skin-savers blokes will be proud to display on the bathroom shelf
Malky Mackay allegations: Malky Mackay, Iain Moody and another grim day for English football

Mackay, Moody and another grim day for English football

The latest shocking claims do nothing to dispel the image that some in the game on these shores exist in a time warp, laments Sam Wallace
La Liga analysis: Will Barcelona's hopes go out of the window?

Will Barcelona's hopes go out of the window?

Pete Jenson starts his preview of the Spanish season, which begins on Saturday, by explaining how Fifa’s transfer ban will affect the Catalans
Middle East crisis: We know all too much about the cruelty of Isis – but all too little about who they are

We know all too much about the cruelty of Isis – but all too little about who they are

Now Obama has seen the next US reporter to be threatened with beheading, will he blink, asks Robert Fisk
Neanderthals lived alongside humans for centuries, latest study shows

Final resting place of our Neanderthal neighbours revealed

Bones dated to 40,000 years ago show species may have died out in Belgium species co-existed
Scottish independence: The new Scots who hold fate of the UK in their hands

The new Scots who hold fate of the UK in their hands

Scotland’s immigrants are as passionate about the future of their adopted nation as anyone else
Britain's ugliest buildings: Which monstrosities should be nominated for the Dead Prize?

Blight club: Britain's ugliest buildings

Following the architect Cameron Sinclair's introduction of the Dead Prize, an award for ugly buildings, John Rentoul reflects on some of the biggest blots on the UK landscape