x Abu Dhabi, UAEWednesday 17 January 2018

A little irritation goes a long way when it comes to oysters

Beneath buoys off the shore of RAK, business is growing as up to 150,000 oysters stacked in linear nets produce about 40,000 cultured pearls a year.

In the shadow of the towering mountains north of Ras Al Khaimah city, flying fish and turtles swim among the lush mangroves along the shores of the Gulf.

Around the mangroves sit rows and rows of buoys, each acting as a perching post for a seagull resting its wings, creating a serene picture of calm. But beneath the buoys business is growing, as up to 150,000 oysters stacked in linear nets produce about 40,000 cultured pearls a year.

"We meant to have this farm in an official marine community because pearling is rooted in Ras Al Khaimah," explained Abdulla Rashed Al Suwaidi, the vice chairman and managing director of RAK Pearls Holding, the farm owner.

The oysters are caught from the sea locally and grown to a reasonable size in the farm nets.

They are then taken into a ramshackle shed, where three technicians perform the surgery required to culture a pearl.

The oyster shells are prized open and a 1mm square piece of tissue is cut from the oyster.

A small bead made from shells in the Mississippi river is then placed inside the oyster along with the piece of tissue, and the surgery is complete. The oyster treats the bead as an irritant and grows around it.

Each technician is able to perform the operation on 200 to 250 oysters per day.

The oysters are then put back in the water and harvested a year later, having been jet washed every week to keep them healthy and free from parasites.

About 2 to 4 per cent of the oysters die each month during the process and the technicians have no control over the outcome.

The oyster decides how big or shiny the pearl becomes, as well as its colour, shape and lustre, defined as the quality of light reflected from the pearl.

There are about 11 colours created at the farm, including white, pink, grey, silver and gold.

Once the pearls are collected, the oysters are sent straight to the RAK Pearls restaurant in the city to be sold and eaten fresh.

Some of the oyster is used for fertiliser, and the pearls are sold on to wholesalers. No part of the shellfish is wasted.

"My ancestors were once divers looking for pearls. It is in my family," says Mr Al Suwaidi.

"The farm is part of the community. It's a community-based project."

rjones@thenational.ae