The Western Australian pearl oyster fishery is the only remaining significant wild-stock fishery for pearl oysters in the world. It is a quota-based, dive fishery, operating in shallow coastal waters along the North-West Shelf.

The harvest method is drift diving, in which six to eight divers are attached to large outrigger booms on a vessel and towed slowly over the pearl oyster beds, harvesting legal-sized oysters by hand. The species targeted is the Indo-Pacific, silver-lipped pearl oyster (Pinctada maxima).

WA’s pearling industry comprises three main components: the collection of pearl oysters from the wild; production of hatchery-reared pearl oysters; and the seeding of pearls followed by grow-out in pearl oysters on pearl farm leases.

Quota limits are set for the harvest of pearl oysters from the wild to ensure the long-term sustainability of the resource.

The pearl oyster fishery is managed primarily through output controls in the form of a total allowable catch (TAC) divided up into individually transferable quotas (ITQs). There are 572 wild-stock ITQ units allocated across three management zones. Hatchery production is also controlled by ITQs and currently there are 350 hatchery ITQ units allocated amongst 14 pearling licensees.

Pearl oyster fishing vessels operate from the Lacepede Islands north of Broome to Exmouth Gulf in the south. The number of vessels in the fishing fleet has slowly reduced from 16 in 1997, mostly due to increased fleet efficiency and increased reliance on hatchery-produced shells.

In 2009, the impact of the Global Financial Crisis saw the fleet drop to only two vessles although this number climbed to five in 2013.

Most vessels presently operate 10 –14 crew for the fishing of pearl oysters between March and June each year.
The pearl fishery is WA’s second most valuable fishery – contributing about $60million to the State’s economy each year.

Key Species Fished

Oysters (P. maxmia)
Back to North Coast Bioregion