Tackling food waste in Dubai, one oyster shell at a time

The Dubai Oyster project is taking food waste and using it to build thriving reefs off the coast of the UAE

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Few delicacies are as synonymous with luxury as oysters. Featured on the menus of top restaurants the world over, they are a food of celebration, often enjoyed together in moments of indulgence and joie de vivre.

Globally, an estimated two billion oysters are consumed each year. That’s a lot of shucking — and a whole lot of shells.

For many, it’s unlikely much thought is given to those shells once the Mignonette is sprinkled and the oyster swallowed. But around the world they are being given a new lease of life, including off the coast of Dubai. The Dubai Oyster Project is the brainchild of Joey Ghazal, founder of The Maine group, which across its three brasseries is one of the city’s biggest purveyors of oysters, selling more than 50,000 per month.

“Oysters are, in my opinion, the best way to start any meal,” Ghazal says. “We regularly feature more than 12 varieties from around the world, including Atlantic, Pacific, European Flats and local Dibba Bay Oysters.”

The project’s mission is to repurpose the shells of those oysters, putting them back into the ocean to create new reefs and habitats where wildlife, including the endangered Hawksbill turtle, can thrive.

Ghazal co-founded the project with long-time friend and keen environmentalist Fadi Abu Ghali. “Joey came to me and he said: ‘Listen, we sell 50,000 oysters a month, and these shells are going to waste. I would love to do something with that waste and to give back. And not only to give back, but also have our diners give back’,” Ghali says.

Ghali is a board member at Dubai’s The Arbor School, which teaches eco-literacy and environmental justice through a hands-on curriculum that often gets students out into nature. “I went and spoke to the board of the school and it was decided the oysters would be introduced into the school’s curriculum, bringing the shells in from The Maine restaurants and giving them to the students, who could then take those shells and put them into various contraptions, which are then planted back into the water as reefs,” Ghali says.

It is hoped these reefs, placed at Nakheel Water Front close to Jebal Ali, will become important ecological sites in Dubai’s waters. Oyster reefs not only create a habitat for fish and marine life, they provide the building blocks on which young oyster larvae depend, attaching to the hard shell substrate provided by reefs to grow.

“The students are then going back to the reefs to look at growth and look at what has worked and what hasn’t with the scientists and the educators,” Ghali says. “We are all learning, but you should see the look on the students’ faces when they are actually out in nature doing things that make a difference.”

Working alongside the Emirates Marine Environmental Group, it is hoped the project, which has been running for close to two years, will be expanded across the UAE and region, with both more restaurants and organisations wanting to be involved. “I’ve got restaurants and schools knocking on our door saying ‘please can we participate’,” says Ghali. “They are not only keen; they are super excited to get involved. It’s a feel good story.”

The Maine also ensures its customers know all about the project whenever they order oysters. “Our guests love the fact that the oysters they are consuming are finding their way back to the sea,” Ghazal says. “We have received countless requests from parents that want their own kids to be involved in this initiative. We hope to be able to get more children involved as the programme grows and evolves.”

And for Ghazal, the project is three-fold, not only promoting marine biodiversity and contributing to the education of future generations, but helping to tackle one of his industry’s biggest and most pressing issues – food waste.

“These shells would ordinarily end up in landfills, so the idea really started as a solution to tackle a waste problem,” he says. “We very much hope that by raising awareness for this programme we can inspire other restaurants and hotels to donate their oyster shells. We have already donated more than 400,000 shells from The Maine alone, so you can imagine how many more we can donate if all the restaurants and hotels were to get involved.”

For Ghali, the project is also poignant given the UAE’s rich history with oysters and pearl diving. “Oysters have always been important in the UAE, so it’s almost like it’s come full circle,” he says. “Until people stop eating seafood altogether, this is a way we can contribute. The goal in the end is to leave the ocean alone, but until we reach that, it’s good to feel like we are doing something.”

Updated: May 21, 2022, 4:11 AM