Gambier’s Pearl Farms Increasingly Become Navigational Hazard

In recent years, the motto in the Gambier Islands seems to be “a pearl farm for everyone.” Many new concessions were granted, and the result is clearly noticeable. Not only were existing buoy fields massively expanded, but also countless smaller installations were deployed (and still are), scattered throughout the lagoon. Some of those new installations are made by one-man companies, lacking man-power, proper material, and know-how. The outcome is badly set up buoy fields that increasingly pose a navigational hazard.

This year we encountered several fields and single lines that are only partially marked with buoys on the surface or not marked at all. Such submerged installations are not visible when approaching until the boat is already right above them and it’s too late to change course. A well-built installation is clearly marked and has the horizontal lines deep enough (around 5 m) to allow sailing over it without any danger, but that’s just in theory and we can no longer assume that. This year we saw installations with long ropes floating on the surface and submerged buoys and lines at depths dangerous for navigation. We damaged our propeller while sailing from Akamaru’s W-side to Rikitea at position 23° 09.519′ S, 134° 56.366′ W. An unmarked installation had a bundle of four buoys tied together in a depth of 1-1.5m. Those buoys first scraped along the keel and then hit the propeller (which wasn’t turning) and bent one blade.

The safest way for yachts would be to avoid buoy fields entirely. However, with not or only partially marked fields, it’s impossible to tell where one ends and the other one starts. Our advice for other cruisers to avoid accidents like ours is: when you see a buoy further ahead of you, head for it and dodge it when close by. This is often safer than heading for the space between buoys, as there might be submerged parts of the installation.

I expect the situation to worsen in the next few years as the pearl-farming industry is expanding rapidly. Many new buoy fields will spring up and some of them badly done. Furthermore I expect some (smaller) entrepreneurs to lose interest in their farms, leaving their buoy fields unmaintained. So we’ll more and more have to deal with abandoned, disintegrating installations and scattered debris. Only stricter regulations could improve the situation.

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