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Paul Birch - General Manager - Operations Broome | Pearling Master

July 17, 2018 1 Comment

Paul Birch - General Manager - Operations Broome | Pearling Master

Tell us a little about yourself
I relocated to Broome in 2014 from Dunsborough with my wife and 2 boys. I had been working in the Wine Industry in a variety of wine production and management roles mainly in the Margaret River wine region but have also been lucky enough to spend a chunk of time working in Sicily and Sothern Italy as well as bit of time spent in Mildura. It was time to stop and look around a little and appreciate what life had to offer after a bit of a family tragedy and an opportunity came up to work at Willie Creek.

I like the good things in life – wine, food, fishing and rugby union. Above all else my family is number one.

As a Pearling Master what does your job at Willie Creek involve?
I am responsible for all commercial pearling operations and disseminating the world of pearling to our staff and the world at large. I look after the shell stocks and the various groups (cohorts) so that they are handled and managed to get the best outcome in terms of resultant pearl quality and long-term productivity of the group. Being the Pearling Master means I am also the delegated person in our company to handle a number of process and documents with the Department of Fisheries.

My role is very hands on and I engage our staff at various stages to assist, which includes tour guides all the way through to our Managing Director, Robert Banfield.

What is your favourite part about Pearl Farming?
In a general sense, it’s the concept that you have a tangible object that through various process you can create something else. Along the journey there are obstacles and various changes to conditions / situations which, when combined with the tyranny of time, means that you need to adapt and change what you’re doing to try and maximise the outcome – short and long term. In a physical sense it’s about being on and interacting with the ocean environment.

Paul pearl harvest

How did you become a Pearling Master and how long did it take?
Being a Pearling Master requires only a simple application form (and fee). One of the prerequisites of course is that you need to be associated with a company that holds a commercial licence. I think the term is something that should be more widely used though, as it was in the days gone. I think the terminology gives the position a level of integrity and will help the industry by making those who are directly involved in the creation of the end product more familiar to the public, which in turn helps everyone understand that there is an architect with personality. 

Can you tell us what an Oyster Hatchery is?
In very simple terms it’s a controlled environment where mature adult male and female oysters (Brood stock) can spawn so that juvenile oysters (spat) can be produced, developed and reared until they are at a suitably safe size to deploy to the open ocean for further growth.

Can you tell us a little bit about why the new Hatchery was built at Willie Creek?
To assist in us having access to an alternative shell supply other than collected (fishing) wild shell for seeding. It offers a lot in terms of managing sustainability and shell productivity through the ability to have shell of known parentage, family line, breeding and age.

Now the hatchery construction is complete, what happens first? 
Micro algae will need to be cultured so that the spat has a food source. There are four specific types that are used. Two are tropical species and two are temperate species. They appear as different colours. That process is an upscaling one so it takes several weeks. There’s no point getting to a spawn if there’s no food source available. 

Will guests visiting Willie Creek Pearl Farm get to see what happens inside the hatchery?
Yes, we can’t take them into the hatchery as such for bio security reasons, however we have some viewing windows and have renovated our Pearl Farm tour to include a section on the hatchery and can explain and illustrate everything through the use of some digital screens.

What is the best part about your job?
I’m forever learning and each day is almost never the same as the previous and tomorrow will more than likely be different to the one before. It's dynamic and forever changing. Mostly it’s about the people, whether it be staff, colleagues or visitors. It’s great to be involved with people who all have their own story and I love the fact I’ve got a story I can share with them that is intriguing, complex and interesting.

What’s the toughest part of your job?
The wet season. It’s hot, humid and the westerly wind makes doing things more complicated than what it already is with the tides and our location in general. I also have lots of restless nights with storms and low pressure systems threatening the infrastructure (long lines) that the shell is on and all the other parts of Willie Creek Pearls that I’m involved with. In saying that, I do like the dramatic scenery that comes with the wet… it's amazing and you can really feel how electric it is sometimes. Also the barra fire up so that helps!

What do you find so special about Australian South Sea Cultured Pearls?
The speed at which they can grow and at which a brilliant lustre can become present. I've recently seen oysters that have pretty amazing results after just a quarter of the growing period. That’s not to say we would harvest them after this time but just that the process is so immediate which is a result of the unique and pristine environment we work with and that the oysters are in.

Pearling Master

What’s the most surprising thing you’ve learnt about Pearling?
To be really honest… everything about pearling is surprising. The history, the industry itself including the regulation, the processes, how oysters respond to things, the people, the future and the opportunity for science to drive development are all things that spring to mind in general, however if there was one simple fact that I didn’t know before I started, it would be that the culturing process is done inside a living organism.

1 Response

Veronica Curness
Veronica Curness

July 24, 2018

Great story Paul. Can’t wait to get back to Broome, & do another tour (our 5th) of Willie Creek Pearl Farm.

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