Saving the Bay by Recycling a Mighty Mollusk

February 10, 2020 · 3 minute read
Saving the Bay by Recycling a Mighty Mollusk

Maybe you’ve seen a “Don’t Chuck that Shuck” bumper sticker, but what exactly does oyster shell recycling involve, and why does it matter? Oysters are important not only to seafood lovers but for anyone who cares about clean water, protecting our coastlines, and Virginia’s economy. The list of oysters’ ecological and economic services is long, and the Virginia Oyster Shell Recycling Program (VOSRP) is on a mission to help their populations thrive today and long into the future.

One adult oyster can filter 50 to 60 gallons of water per day. Oyster reefs shelter future generations and a multitude of other species. They also stabilize land, helping shield vulnerable coastlines from erosion. These mollusks are a popular protein for millions of people, and as such, an economic powerhouse for the Chesapeake Bay watershed.

This pearl-producing bivalve morphs throughout its life cycle. From a fertilized egg, it transitions through various larval stages into a veliger, which develops two shells. Next, the roughly two-week-old pediveliger grows a foot and eye and begins searching for a hard surface to cling to. Once attached, it’s called a spat, and spats mature into adults. In the wild, oyster reefs provide the perfect habitat. After all, what better place for a young spat to grow up than in an environment that already supports their kin?

The problem arises when we combine overharvesting with tossing shells in the trash. This means fewer spat with only fragmented, shrinking reefs to harbor them. That’s where VOSRP comes in. 

Upon its launch in 2013, the program partnered with four Richmond restaurants to save nearly six tons of shells in only four months. Today, over 60 Virginia restaurants save shells for collection, curing, seeding, and their ultimate return to the environment as reefs, diverting nearly 63 tons from landfills each year. Also involved are ten oyster companies, some of which supply farm-raised oysters for participating restaurants to serve on the half-shell, adding to the net gain of shells in the Bay.

After curing for almost a year in piles at storage sites like the VCU Rice Rivers Center, the recycled shells are sifted and bagged by volunteers like us Virginia Master Naturalists did during a recent workday. From there, they are bound for specialized tanks, or “jacuzzis,” as some experts like VOSRP Director Todd Janeski fondly refer to them, to be seeded with spat. Once spat attach to the shells in the tanks (each can host up to 15 spat), they return to the water at restoration sites.

In this way, the program doesn’t simply reinforce reefs with natural substrate; it is actively populating our waterways with living oysters. The VCU Rice Rivers Center estimates that if every volunteer-collected shell is returned to the wild with spat, they are “replenishing more than 11 million oysters in the Chesapeake Bay” every year. And more oysters is a boon for all of us.

Check out this 2018 short film about VOSRP, a grand-prize winner of the 2018 RVA Environmental Film Festival

Get Involved (adapted from the VCU Rice Rivers Center):

  • If you don’t see your favorite restaurant listed here, ask them to join.
  • Recycle your own shells at one of our 30 public drop-off sites
  • If you have a home on the river, become an oyster gardener and grow oysters on your dock to help restoration efforts. Visit Tidewater Oyster Gardeners Association (TOGA) to learn more.
  • Volunteer to move shells, conduct restoration projects, work oyster-related events, fundraise / organize events, or help develop marketing or communication materials.
  • If you are a business and want to participate, contact the program to find out how.

Donate (select “Oyster Shell Recycling Projects” from the drop-down).