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remaining pearl-shell was found in deep-water beds, and Roughley (1936, p219)
wrote that, although the resource was still available in Torres Strait, pearl-shell was
smaller and less abundant to the south of Cairns.
The annual harvests and values of the Queensland pearl-shell fishery from
1890-1940 are shown in Figure 5.5, which illustrates the considerable variability
that characterised the industry. In particular, the reductions in pearl-shell harvests
during the First World War, and again during the early 1930s, are evident in
Figure 5.5. These graphs show that, in a similar manner to the bĂȘche-de-mer fishery,
pearl-shelling reached its highest levels during the 1920s, although the peak of
the latter industry occurred slightly later, in 1929, when 1,429 tons of pearl-shell
were harvested. During the Second World War, pearling luggers were requisitioned
by the Australian Navy, and no commercial pearl-shelling took place from 1941-
1945. During those years, one report stated that:
Exports of pearl shell was prohibited and later the Department of Munitions
took over all the stocks in Australia, which were used for making prismatic
compass dials for the Australian and Canadian armies, and to supply gold-
lipped pearl shell for use as currency by the forces in New Guinea. Stocks fell
so low that it became necessary to arrange for some pearl shell fishing.
(NADC, 1946, p10)
Nevertheless, this small revival of the pearl-shell industry during the Second
World War was short-lived as, subsequently, synthetic plastics replaced pearl-shell
in the manufacture of buttons and the pearl-shell market collapsed.
A later report by the industry by the Northern Australia Development
Committee (NADC), published in 1946, reached similar conclusions as the 1908
Queensland Royal Commission about the over-exploitation of resources. The
report described the early phase of the industry, when pearl-shell was plentiful
and could be collected from shallow water, and the necessity for divers to
exploit increasingly deep stocks. The NADC acknowledged that until 1900 the
Queensland fishery was far more successful than that of Western Australia, but
that the Queensland fishery then declined, comparatively, until 1925. After that
date, the Queensland industry recovered and dominated Australian production
until its final collapse (NADC, 1946, p8). Yet the report acknowledged the
severe over-exploitation of pearl oyster stocks, stating that:
The beds had become very depleted, and of course the huge output of shell
by the up-to-date Japanese ships had an adverse effect on the world market,
and with the losses suffered by the Broome pearlers in the hurricane of 1935,
left the Australian industry at a low ebb.
(NADC, 1946, p9)
The NADC concluded that the Queensland pearl-shell fishery had operated on
a basis that was far from sustainable and, hence, was comparatively short-lived.
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