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Figure 5.4 The collection of pearl-shell aboard a Queensland lugger. Source: Negative No.
49810, Historical Photographs Collection, John Oxley Library, Brisbane
the need for the closure of the pearling grounds had become more urgent since
there was practically no pearl-shell remaining in Endeavour Strait.
Yet in 1890, Saville-Kent (1890a, pp727-8) reported the continued
profitability of the industry: he acknowledged that the pearl-shell fisheries of
northern Queensland occupied 'a prominent position among the most important
commercial industries of this Colony', and stated that, from 1884-1888, the
average annual export value of pearl-shell was £69,000, more than double the
combined value of the bêche-de-mer and oyster fisheries in Queensland. In 1890,
Saville-Kent (1890a) reported, 1,000 workers were employed in the pearl-shell
industry at Thursday Island, and 93 licences for pearling luggers were granted
there, which was a reduction compared with the numbers operating before
1886. He attributed that decline to a large-scale migration of fishing operators
to the Western Australian pearling grounds, although many of those operators
subsequently returned to the Queensland fishery.
However, in spite of his comments about the profitability of the fishery,
Saville-Kent recognised that some depletion of the pearl-shell beds had already
occurred since it had become necessary to obtain pearl-shell from increasingly
deep water as the shallow-water stocks became scarce. He stated:
The average depth of water from which the greater quantity of the mother-
of-pearl shell is at present collected is seven or eight fathoms [approximately
fourteen metres]. In former years it was abundant, and is even now
occasionally obtained in water of such little depth that it can be gathered
with the hand at low spring tides. Twenty fathoms [approximately 37 metres]
of water represent about the greatest depth from which the shell is profitably
fished [...]. Some of the largest shell now placed on the market is collected at
the above depth from off the New Guinea coast.
(Saville-Kent, 1890a, pp727-8)
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