Statewide programs take discarded oyster shells to help replenish the oyster supply and keep the water clean
Two ongoing programs in Delaware are helping clean up the state’s waterways, rebuild eroded or impacted shorelines, and keep the oyster population numbers up.
The Partnership for the Delaware Estuary’s Oyster Shell Recycling Program, and the Delaware Center for the Inland Bays’ “Don’t Chuck Your Shucks” take bushels of discarded oyster shells that would otherwise be consigned to the dump, and uses them to help create healthier ecosystems.
In both cased, the shells are collected, cured, and then used to give new oysters a home to attach themselves to, in some cases as part of a manmade “living shoreline.”
FROM STORE TO SHORE
In New Castle and Kent Counties, the Partnership for the Delaware Estuary helps protect a wide variety of waterways and inlets.
The estuary stretches from Trenton, New Jersey, and Morrisville, Pennsylvania, south to Cape May, New Jersey, and Cape Henlopen, including all of the Delaware Bay and tidal reaches of the Delaware River, according to the PDE website.
Jeff Long, watershed outreach specialist with the Partnership for the Delaware Estuary, said that only one month into their program, they’ve signed up seven restaurants and have collected roughly 9,000 lbs. of oyster shells in that time.
The goal, Long added, is to bring in significantly more tonnage that that.
“We’re doing great – we initially wanted eight to 10 restaurants, and we have seven, so we’re on track,” Long said. “We’re going to continue to expand to 10 to 12 restaurants, and we’ve even been eyeing Philadelphia.”
Long said that by recycling the shells, they’re not only helping to replenish the oyster population, they’re also being diverted from landfills.
“Once they’re back in the bay, you are increasing the abundance and diversity of organisms in the bay, and you’re also providing a space for young oysters – or spat – to grow, since they attach themselves to the shells.”
In Sussex County, the Delaware Center for the Inland Bays has co-sponsored the similar “Don’t Chuck your Shucks” program for the past two years. The program is now in its first full season.
The inland bays consist of three interconnected bodies of water in southeastern Sussex County: Indian River Bay, Little Assawoman Bay, and Rehoboth Bay, according to the CIB website.
According to CIB communications specialist Katie Goerger, a nutrient problem persists in much of Delaware’s waterways.
“Specifically, it’s saturated with nutrients like nitrogen and phosphorus,” Goerger said. “Oysters are fantastic for filtering that out.”
George Esterling III, owner of George and Sons Seafood in Hockessin, said that he’s averaged 15 to 20 bushels of shells per week since June.
Esterling’s restaurant opened a raw bar in February 2015, which accelerated their production of oyster shells – sometimes over 4,000 a week.
“I had no place to recycle them, so I started lining out dirt basement floor with them,” he said.
Esterling hear about the CIB program while participating in a University of Delaware oyster research program, and immediately decided he wanted to help.
“I’m not Mr. Green Environmental Guy, but through the years it became much more important,” he said. “So it only made sense to participate.”
After they’re collected and cured, the shells are placed in special bags.
Those bags in turn are submerged and used to shore up portions of a “living shoreline,” a manmade yet organic shoreline that replaces areas that are eroded for any number of reasons.
Long said that rather than installing an unyielding bulkhead, the living shorelines move with tides and fill in with sediment and organisms naturally.
“A retaining wall is like perpendicular to water – these allow for a gradual slope,” Long said. “Imagine a diamond back terrapin trying to get over retaining wall.”
The living shorelines are usually installed in low to medium-low-energy areas to prevent further erision and stabilize the area.
“We’re creating a good habitat, and cleaning the water,” Goerger said. “Plus, it’s completely free and (the shells) would otherwise be tossed out.”
PROGRAMS TO GROW
Long added that while the oyster population is not currently at risk – populations have suffered in recent years for unknown reasons – there is a “shell deficit,” since they are being removed from the bay and not being replaced.
He added there isn’t much awareness of how important the oysters are for the environment, with a single large oyster capable of filtering up to 10 gallons of water a day, removing pollutants and small organisms from the water.
“It’s not just the shells themselves, but the diversity of life improves once you put them back in the bay,” he said.
According to the Estuary’s website, the shell-planting and transplant program could increase production to approximately 200,000 to 400,000 bushels per year, with a possible economic impact of up to $60 million between Delaware and New Jersey.
Goerger said that eventually, the “Don’t Chuck Your Shucks” program could expand to create an oyster reef, which she said is a much longer-term and large-scale solution.
She added that the “Shucks” program collected 1,000 bushels of shells in its inaugural season last year.
“Right now they’re engineered for the living shorelines, but we’re expected to grow – we have 17 restaurants on board, and we’re in talks with others,” Goerger said. “Our goal this year is to collect 2,000 bushels by the fall.”
For more information on the Partnership for the Delaware Estuary, visit delawareestuary.org.
For more information on the Center for the Inland Bays, visit inlandbays.org.
Facts About Oysters
The oysters commonly eater by humans are referred to as “true oysters”
Oysters are capable of spawning within their first year of life
Oysters are thought to be among the oldest animals on the planet and are found worldwide
Their exact evolutionary path remains unclear
The hard shell of the oyster is primarily made up from calcium
Although commercially farmed, wild oysters are becoming rarer mainly due to increasing levels of pollution