It's hard work but the world's their oyster

Owners of floating farm off Pulau Ubin confident they can beat foreign competition by offering fresh produce

The wooden structure, just 100m off Mamam Beach on the northern shore of Pulau Ubin, looks like a regular fish farm.

Its painted walls, bleached by sunlight to a pasty blue, creak with each surge of an oncoming wave.

At a glance, the floating farm looks unremarkable. Its produce, however, is anything but.

Farm manager Lek Wei Boon has about 20 years’ experience working as a manager and consultant on oyster farms in Singapore. He attended an oyster farming course in South Australia. Mr Lek now works for Sea Farmers @ Ubin and oversees its operations. ST PHOTO: DESMOND LIM

A metre beneath Singapore's only oyster farm are thousands of baskets holding some 200,000 pacific oysters of various sizes.

Since April, the farm - about the size of three basketball courts - has received a new lease on life after it was purchased from the previous owner, who ran it for about five years. The new owners, a couple who hold professional day jobs, say the farm was bought for a six-figure sum.

Work on Sea Farmers @ Ubin has been in high gear since the farm changed hands as the new owners hope to harvest enough of the briny molluscs to cater to the year-end demand from local hotels and restaurants.

Spat, which are baby oysters, are imported from Australia once every three months and then cultivated in the local tropical waters to about 8cm before they are sold.

Farm manager Lek Wei Boon, who oversees the daily operations, says that Singapore's tropical waters boost oysters' growth as the oysters feed continuously without going into hibernation.

Ms Michelle Mok, 37, the owner of Sea Farmers @ Ubin, says: "We are not bound by seasons, so we can harvest fresh oysters all year round for our consumers."

But local oyster farming still has its challenges.

Barnacles and mussels, which reproduce rapidly in warmer waters, tend to attach themselves to the oysters, competing for food and retarding the oysters' growth.

"We have to clean the oysters daily by scraping off the barnacles. Then we sort them according to sizes. That's why work on the farm is endless," says Mr Lek.

Oysters are also put through UV sterilisation to remove any bacteria before they are delivered.

Singaporeans' appetite for the shellfish has grown steadily.

According to the Agri-Food and Veterinary Authority , 795 tonnes of live oysters were imported in 2013 compared with just 469 tonnes in 2007.

Last year, 858 tonnes of live oysters were imported from countries like the United States, Canada, New Zealand and France.

Ms Mok is, however, unfazed by stiff competition from overseas.

"Freshness is key when it comes to oysters. Imported ones have to be flown in and kept in storage before and after the flight," she says.

"But because we are local, we can get our oysters from farm to table within the day."

Farm manager Lek Wei Boon shares his thoughts about oysters in this video:

A version of this article appeared in the print edition of The Straits Times on November 19, 2015, with the headline 'It's hard work but the world's their oyster'. Subscribe