For the past several months, VCU’s Rice Center, the state, area restaurants, and citizen groups have been collecting oyster shells and storing them in a big dumpster in Richmond. More than 150 bushels of shells (approximately 12,000 pounds) have been collected and will be donated to the Chesapeake Bay Foundation for oyster restoration projects — building oyster reefs, living shorelines, etc. Volunteers shoveled the oyster shells from the dumpster into bushel baskets for transport to CBF’s Oyster Restoration Center at Gloucester Point.
“This quantity of shell is very significant to us,” stated Jackie Shannon, Virginia CBF Oyster Restoration Specialist, “The amount of shell generated in Richmond in four months is equal to the total annual donations from all of our Virginia partners combined.”
The wild Eastern Oyster, also referred to as the Virginia Oyster, in the Chesapeake Bay is at critical population levels due to increased water pollution, loss of habitat, over-harvesting, and diseases that affect oysters. Historically, the Eastern Oyster was a significant part of the Chesapeake Bay economy and by the late 19th century the harvest was approximately 17 million bushels of oysters per year. Today, the population is estimated to be at only one to two percent of the peak number. The most recent harvest numbers of oysters was in excess of 400,000 bushels, which is a significant increase from the 2001 harvest of 23,000 bushels; however, this is still far from the historic sustainable population.
Ecologically, natural oyster shell is the preferred substrate for growing new oysters but due to a decline in available shell from a reduced harvest, many restoration projects are relying on reclaimed clam shell, crushed concrete or reef balls as a surrogate for oyster shell for wild oysters to attach. The State of Virginia recently directed $2 million to the Virginia Marine Resources Commission to harvest one million bushels of fossilized oyster shell from the James River to support the replenishment of wild oyster reefs for private and commercial harvesting. While alternative materials for reef construction are a feasible option, the natural substrate is preferred strongly.
Beginning in May, 2013, VCU partnered with the Virginia Green Travel Program, Chesapeake Bay Foundation, City of Richmond, Tidewater Fiber Corporation, Virginia Master Naturalist Program, Virginia Coastal Zone Management Program, Rappahannock River Oyster Company and four Richmond-based restaurants (Rappahannock Restaurant, Lemaire at the Jefferson Hotel, Acacia Mid-Town, and Pearl Raw Bar) to collect used oyster shell that was being directed to the landfill. The pilot project was essentially a zero-budget approach to coordinate partners around the single vision, to collect and return used oyster shell to the Virginia portion of the Chesapeake Bay for the purpose of wild oyster restoration.
The pilot began the collection of shell in mid-August, 2013 using volunteer labor from the Virginia Master Naturalists and Chesapeake Bay Program Volunteers as Chesapeake Stewards (VoiCes). In four months, nearly 12,000 lbs. of oyster shell were collected from the participating restaurants, the 17th St Farmers Market Shockoe on the Half-shell Oysterfest, St. Thomas Episcopal Oystoberfest, and the Richmond Folk Festival.