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  • Writer's pictureAlly Landes

DIBBA BAY OYSTER FARM | A Sustainable Local Project

It was such a privilege to visit the state-of-the-art production facility of Dibba Bay and meet with its Founder and CEO, Ramie Murray. I received a complete lowdown on this unique shellfish farm which is the first of its kind in the Middle East based in Dibba, Fujairah.


Dibba Bay Oyster Farm

I grew up eating imported oysters, my Dad worked in catering and was a member of La Chaîne des Rôtisseurs back in the late 70s, early 80s so I ate a lot of gourmet imported products back in the day and I can honestly say, Dibba Bay’s oysters are truly outstanding! Knowing these are a locally sustainable product, free from chemicals and now certified by Friend of the Sea, it’s another step in the right direction in our goals of living sustainably. This is one of my favourite local projects and I’m excited for its future.


It’s a remarkable feat to have taken a historical UAE symbol from the cultural days of Pearl Diving and given it a completely new lease of life by introducing luxurious edible oysters. Who knew it was possible to farm such spectacular oysters here within our warm waters.


Dibba Bay Oyster Farm

How has the local population taken to the spin on oysters now being an edible gourmet product?

Generally, with pride, many locals I speak to are very interested and very proud of the fact there is this gourmet product coming from the oceans here in the UAE. Traditionally, they wouldn’t eat the local pearl oysters, so there isn’t a culture of eating oysters amongst the local population, however the younger generation are branching out and happy to try them. We’ve introduced cooked oysters onto our menu not only for the locals, but for anybody not too sure about eating them raw – it’s a lovely introduction to them to have them cooked.


Dibba Bay Oysters

How did you come to be an oyster farmer? Where did it all start?

I started here, I grew up in Dubai and I was actually down in Oman trying to start a lobster farm. Lobsters were everywhere when I was young and I was working there in later life and found out that they had almost become endangered because they had been massively overfished, so I looked into other species that could potentially work in this environment. Aquaculture is blowing up all over the world to meet food requirements. If you look at the whole Saudi Red Sea coast, the Yemeni coast, the Omani coast and the UAE’s coast, there was basically nothing happening aquaculturally wise, and it’s a very productive ocean. It’s only really in the summer in Dibba when the water becomes quite clear. The rest of the time, it’s quite greenish, especially on the surface. If you dive down deeper, less so, but that’s the phytoplankton which is the algae that’s growing. That’s the basis for life in the ocean, everything feeds off of that, the small fish eat off of that, the bigger fish feed on them which is the whole basis of the cycle, so it’s a very productive ocean, and therefore the right type of aquaculture in that ocean should be very successful.


While we were looking at it, oysters came up. Traditionally, it’s assumed oysters would only grow in a cold ocean, but what we know now, it’s not necessarily about the temperature affecting the oyster, it’s the temperature affecting the food of the oyster. Normally you only get the upwellings of the phytoplankton in the cooler oceans, whereas here, because it’s so deep in Fujairah and very close to the shore, even when the surface water is very hot, you’ve still got much cooler deep water so you still get an upwelling of nutrients and food. These special conditions are where you’ve got lovely warm water which encourages the fast growth of an animal, but also the food to support that growth.


Dibba Bay Oyster Lanterns
Dibba Bay Oyster Lanterns

Where do these oysters start their lives?

We use the Pacific Oyster (Crassostrea gigas) which originally comes from around China and Japan, and this species accounts for 90% of the world’s farmed oysters. There are 200 species of oysters, and as with any animal that is farmed, particular breeds of the species lend themselves to farming. With oysters, the Crassostrea gigas is the hardiest and has the largest temperature range. It can be in very cold or very hot environments. The same species that comes from China and Japan has been introduced all over the world. It’s the species that is grown in France, in the UK, in Alaska – because it gives a very nice product. The oysters look and taste different from all over the world, for the same reason that you can take a Sauvignon Blanc vine from France and plant it in Chile and it will taste different. It’s the “terroir” (the complete natural environment in which a particular wine is produced, including factors such as the soil, topography, and climate) – with oysters, we refer to it as “merroir” because they’re filter feeders, so they take all their nutrients and their food from the environment that they’re put in. You can get baby oysters from the same hatchery put it in France, put it here, in Alaska, put it wherever, and they’ll all look and taste different because they build their shell with the minerals they find in the water. You notice our shells are very white. That’s because of the high calcite in our waters because of the limestone mountains. European oysters are more grey because the calcites aren’t as high, it’s purely aesthetic. But they build with what’s in the water and then they feed on the phytoplankton – we’ve identified 40 different types, but there’s probably more – there’s different ones at different times of the year so that’s what gives their taste, what allows them to grow, and what they build their bodies from.


Dibba Bay Oyster Lanterns

How exactly are they born?

They’re born as larvae and swim around in the water columns for a couple of weeks, and then they fasten onto a little fragment of shell from another oyster, then they start secreting onto that, and that’s how they start building their shell. In the wild, they have a 0.1% chance of survival because they have to find the right bit of chip of stone or shell to latch onto.


In France they traditionally put out nets full of broken shells at the right time of year and the larvae will wash over in the current, they’ll latch on and you’ll get free baby oysters. In recent times, there’s been so much disease in the waters around Europe that kill the baby oysters, now most farmers buy from hatcheries. They’re a bit bigger and hardier, so they’ve got a better survival rate.


We’re not big enough to justify our own hatchery just yet, so we are still buying them from hatcheries which are all over the world. The one we use at the moment is from the west coast of France.


How many of those do you acquire to get your population going?

We’re purchasing tens of millions.


How long do your oysters take to grow to full size?

Approximately nine months. It can take 2-3 years in colder waters. We get a much faster growth rate because of the conditions in the water here.


Dibba Bay Oysters
Dibba Bay Oysters

How do your 2 concessions work with the different depths?

The shallower site is where we started. Shallower water is easier and safer from a diving point of view to work in. When we were just a little startup we went for the shallower water, operating in 10-12 metre depths. That gives a lot of food, but it also gets a lot warmer in the summer, so what we wanted to do was get a deeper site so we could sink the lanterns down to cooler water in the summer months. The algae moves seasonally and you get more flexibility if you’re in deeper water. We had to build up to that though, that was the operational challenge. As a diver to go from 10m to 30m is a big difference, so we had to be sure we were ready. It’s all very well to have a leisure dive at 30m, but working at that depth operationally, we had to be very careful.


We didn’t have the big barges to begin with, we had old fishing boats and we were hauling things up by hand so there was no way we could have operated in deeper water until we had the barges and the cranes to make that happen.


How often do you have to clean the oysters and the lanterns?

Minimum, once a month. And all that growth is a good sign, because that’s the productivity of the ocean. The oysters grow really fast, but so does everything else, so you get all the biofouling, the predators, etc – it’s definitely not a laid-back business.


Why do you have to clean them if that’s all good for them?

We clean them because if they get completely encrusted in barnacles, especially the smaller oysters, it gets too heavy and they can’t open anymore to feed. Also, they’re competing, as barnacles are filter feeders too, so we brush them all off to favour our oysters.


The Dibba Bay Barge Team cleaning the oyster lanterns.
The Dibba Bay Barge Team cleaning the oyster lanterns.
The Dibba Bay Barge Team

The concessions are in a very open area, there’s no shelter from storms. How do the lanterns fare in rough weather?

Our lines are very well secured at 5m below the surface. We’re fairly storm resistant. Of course if something massive were to come through, we may remove some of the flotations from the surface and sink them down lower. The technique we’re using is used in the Atlantic Ocean as well so we know it can stand up to some pretty serious weather.


How many oysters are you producing?

We’re continuously growing and we’re at a steady state of production at this point in time. Right now we’re producing between 200,000 and 300,000 pieces a month. This is phenomenal growth for us – 2 years ago we were at 30,000-40,000 a month so we’ve had a massive growth spurt. We’re building up to half a million in the very near future.


Cleaned Dibba Bay Oysters

What is the process these oysters go through when they’re ready to come out and go through to packaging?

During their growth cycle, it’s simply about cleaning them, removing predators, and grading them. You don’t want a mix of oysters of different sizes together because the big oysters will steal all the food. They’re like little vacuums, one big oyster can suck in 200 litres of water a day so you need to grade them and keep all the smalls together, the mediums together and all the large ones together. All we’re doing throughout the main life cycle is bringing up the nets, spraying them and cleaning them to stop them fouling up because you want a good flow so there’s food coming through, removing any predation, grading them, and moving them to new bags. That’s the overall grind of farming, the repetition of that.


At the end of the growth cycle, it’s time to harvest them. They are brought in and they get meticulously cleaned. If we didn’t clean them, we would put them in a box, send them to market, the oysters would be fine, they close up and can stay alive for a couple of weeks, but everything on the outside of the shell would have died, and would smell. You’d open the box and there would be this stink of rotting seaweed and dead barnacles which is not ideal. So we clean them for that reason, and also aesthetically. We’re very proud of how pristine they look when they come to market. We clean the outside of the shell, we take them in and we weigh them as they sell by weight, and then we cleanse them by depurating them in our tanks. We don’t use any chemicals at any point in the whole process. They feed naturally in the ocean, so we clean them with pressurised sea water only. We chip them by hand, spray them with sea water, and then we put them in the tanks of sterilised sea water. Again, no chemicals are involved, we just put them through a recirculation and a UV light and then you get the sterilised sea water which the oysters suck through their bodies looking for food – which there isn’t any of – so it empties their stomachs and intestines and cleanses them. We’re also cooling them down in that process so they don’t go into thermal shock taking them directly from the ocean to putting them in a fridge. We’re very careful with the cold change and very gradually reduce the temperature so by the time they get to the customer, they’re very cool but weren’t traumatised in the process. They are a live animal. It’s not like dead fish that gets thrown on ice. We purge our oysters, we cool them, and then they’re packed and sent to market.


Dibba Bay Oyster Cleaning
Dibba Bay Oyster Cleaning
Dibba Bay Oyster Cleaning
Dibba Bay Oyster Grading Process
Dibba Bay Oyster Grading Process
Dibba Bay Oyster Grading Process
Dibba Bay Oyster Cleaning
Dibba Bay Oyster Sterilisation
Dibba Bay Oyster Lab

Why do you put an elastic band around them when you package them?

We do that because the oysters will open and close in their boxes. We pack them the right way up, but if the box got turned onto its side and the oysters didn’t have the band around them, they would open up to have a look as to why they’re the wrong way up. The water would then drain out which is their life support system, and they would then start to die.


Not only do the bands increase shelf life, but its also about preserving the unique flavours and smells and taste of Fujairah. This got picked up by some oyster sommeliers in our export markets. They would take off the bands and smell Fujairah and the freshness of the ocean from them. They could tell there was a big difference between Dibba Bay oysters and the others.


Dibba Bay Oyster Banding Process

What is your carbon footprint?

It’s very low. We import the spat – the name for baby oysters – which are about 4-6mm in size and a box has a million baby oysters in it. The impact is marginal compared to when you import full sized oysters on the market. We are environmentally positive within the ocean because we are creating habitats and filtering water. We do burn fuel for the boats and barges, but that’s about it.


We’re also positive in taking shares from imported oysters. We now have about a 40% market share. Before we came along, 100% were being imported by air freight every week and so there was an average of 300,000 or 400,000 oysters a month being flown in. It’s basically like importing rocks. The carbon footprint of imported oysters is enormous. Our carbon footprint is very low producing them here, but our main contribution is the displacement of those imported oysters.


How has the underwater environment changed since you started the underwater farms?

It was most visible right at the beginning. We started with one line of baskets. I have pictures and it was totally clear, there was nothing going on around the seabed, there were hardly any fish, and then about 3 weeks later when there started to be growth on the outside of the nets, we went out with the fish finder and could clearly see the lanterns and this big mass of fish coming to feed on the outside of the baskets. We’d created a floating reef. Now we’ve got over a hundred lines in place and there are so many shoals of fish that the fisherman have placed their traps all around the farm because we’ve made a fish nursery. The juvenile fish can hide inside the nets from predators, and the bigger fish hide in the shadows of the nets. It has been a real explosion of fish.


What are your plans for the future?

We’ve gone through an aggressive growth period. Now we’re entering a consolidation period. It was very stressful operationally, expanding especially into the deeper site. Now that we’ve expanded our land based facility and have two ocean concessions, we are focusing on increasing our exports while continuing to make the Dibba Bay oyster accessible to the local market. We’ve got more farm to table concepts opening up in Dubai, we also have an oyster bar opening in JBR very soon. And of course, boxes can be collected directly from our farm shop in Dibba too!


The Dibba Bay farm shop in Fishing Harbour 2 in Umm Suqeim 1.
Fresh Dibba Bay Oysters

Are you getting involved with other marine projects?

We’re working with the Fujairah Government on their plans to create reefs all along the Fujairah coastline. We are drying cleaned Dibba Bay oyster shells and returning them to the ocean in non-pollutive gabion cylinders that are 80cm high which act as building blocks to protect coral reefs. The shell structures are offering a substrate for coral growth and new habitat for marine life.


Oyster shells are the perfect building block for reefs, especially for the life cycle of the larvae. It’s the same for the pearl oysters, the local oysters and the scallops, they all work in the same way, so if you have reefs of broken shells from other shellfish, it’s a perfect breeding ground.


Please Note: Dibba Bay is a private area and not open for leisure diving.



DIBBA BAY OYSTERS


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