Oyster Reef Restoration Efforts Could Use Your Help—And Your Oyster Shells

Organizations around the country are asking people do donate spent shells for recycling while their usual restaurant suppliers have shut down due to COVID-19.

A couple of centuries ago, oysters were ridiculously prevalent in the Chesapeake Bay, which stretches nearly 200 miles from Havre de Grace, Maryland to Virginia Beach, Virginia. At that time, more than 17 million bushels of everyone's favorite bivalve were pulled from its waters every year, but that number has since dropped by 98 percent due to a depressing combination of overfishing, degradation of their habitats, and water pollution.

But part of the Chesapeake Bay Foundation's mission to "Save the Bay" includes a number of oyster restoration programs, including small-scale oyster farming and "oyster gardening," which allows amateur aquaculturists to spend a year caring for baby oysters, which are then transplanted onto protected reefs when they're a year old. These restored reefs not only help to increase the oyster population, but they also provide food and shelter for a variety of fish and other marine life.

In order for an oyster to live past the larval stage, it has to find a solid object to attach to. Once it's safely anchored, it can put its energy into feeding itself and growing its own shell. It also happens that the best things that baby oysters—also called spat—can attach themselves to are the discarded shells of other oysters.

Oyster shells in metal crates in Dorchester county, Maryland, USA
VW Pics / Contributor/Getty Images

That's why the Chesapeake Bay Foundation launched the Save Oyster Shells recycling program several years ago. It has partnered with more than 50 local restaurants to collect the "empties" leftover from their half-shell appetizers and oyster-based entrees, which are then passed on to oyster gardeners or used at other stages in the reef restoration process. But because many of those restaurants have temporarily closed due to the ongoing coronavirus pandemic, the CBF isn't getting the shells that it needs.

"We’re clearly not going to meet [last year's] 3,000 bushel mark this year. Through March of this year we collected 556 bushels of shells in Virginia. We’ve received very few shells since then," Jackie Shannon, the Chesapeake Bay Foundation's Virginia Oyster Restoration Manager, told Food & Wine.

"Luckily we have excess shells in storage from previous years when we collected more than were used for oyster restoration work. While the current lack of new shells is not expected to threaten oyster restoration work this year, shell recycling can take years from restaurant to reef. We don’t yet know how long restaurants are going to be affected by this pandemic and the impact on our shell supply down the road."

The Foundation's restaurant shell-recycling program has been temporarily put on hold, but it is encouraging anyone who's grilling, steaming, or slurping oysters at home to save their shells and then take them to one of its no-contact drop-off sites for collection.

The Chesapeake Bay Foundation isn't the only organization that runs an oyster shell recycling program, either by picking empty shells up from local restaurants, asking locals to save their shells, or both. There are similar programs in Alabama, Delaware, Florida, Louisiana, New York, and both Carolinas—and many of them are experiencing pandemic-related shell-shortages, or have had to temporarily halt their collection efforts.

The Coalition to Restore Coastal Louisiana—which launched one of the country's first oyster shell recycling programs—is still determining how to move forward. "We have put all oyster shell recycling on hold at this stage in the pandemic. Very few of our restaurant partners continued operating," CRCL spokesperson James Karst said.

"New Orleans was a hot spot in the early stages of the crisis, and many of the restaurants here closed entirely or shifted to another model [...] There were some other things at play as well, such as the fact that our tourism and convention business evaporated overnight. The oyster business was devastated, it’s safe to say. We have recycled nearly 10 million pounds of oyster shell, but we went to zero pounds in April and so far in May."

The CRCL had 19 restaurant partners before the pandemic, although it is unsure how many of them will reopen when it's safe to do so. It is also trying to adjust its volunteer events to ensure that they adhere to social distancing guidelines. "The pandemic will affect the size and timing of future reef building projects, and it will delay volunteer shell bagging events since we have to let shell cure before it can be used to build reefs," Karst said.

Leslie Vargas, a Coastal Specialist with the North Carolina Coastal Federation said that her organization had suffered similar setbacks. One of the five restaurants that participated in the NCCF's two-year-old Restaurant to Reef Program has closed permanently, while another hasn't yet reopened.

"We have just resumed volunteer pickups from the three remaining restaurants this week. The [shell recycling] program has been dormant since March 12th," she said. "Last year, at this time, we'd collected approximately 400 bushels of shells from restaurants through the Restaurant to Reef program with 15 volunteer participants. This year, we're at about 150 bushels and we are down to seven volunteers due to the closures of the two restaurants."

The NCCF still has three public drop-off points and it is optimistic that it will be able to open two more—and pick up two more restaurant partners—this summer. "We're also working on cohesive messaging and outreach for the area in an effort to make up some of our lost numbers," she added.

Although a temporary decrease in oyster shells doesn't sound that bad, it could significantly affect the oysters that these programs are desperately trying to save. A disheartening 15-year study of the effectiveness of oyster restoration activities in Rhode Island determined that the mortality rate on restored reefs was so high, that the populations started to decline almost immediately after local organizations stopped transplanting new oysters into them.

"A saved Bay won’t be possible without flourishing oyster reefs," Shannon said. "Oysters help clean and filter water, and their reefs provide habitat for a huge variety of underwater life. Healthy oyster reefs also support strong fisheries by offering a home to the shellfish, crabs, and fish that end up on our dinner tables."

So basically saving and donating your empty shells could help save the next generation of oysters. That sounds like a pretty good trade.

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