If you’ve been to any oyster feast in Maryland, it’s likely you’ve walked past buckets full of empty oyster shells, some with tiny remnants of horseradish and cocktail sauce. Instead of being tossed into trashcans and landfills, however, these shells are actually being recycled and will once again call the Chesapeake Bay home.
The concept of recycling oysters has, in recent years, become an important step to combating the oyster shortage in the Chesapeake Bay region. Additionally, oyster shells are a valuable natural resource that can improve the health of our waterways and tributaries in so many ways. By using recycled oyster shells to rebuild barren oyster reefs, we’re able to provide safe homes for many species of fish, crabs, and other shellfish. Reefs also serve as natural breakwaters by absorbing waves and protecting Maryland, Virginia, and Delaware shorelines from erosion.
To receive these ecosystem benefits, however, we must replenish the oyster population. In order for young oysters, also known as "spat", to reach full maturity, they must attach themselves to a hard substrate. If there isn’t a viable surface — ideally another oyster shell— the young oyster will die. Shells are ultimately the quintessential source for continuing the oyster lifecycle.
Our watershed often falls victim to detrimental algal blooms that result in "dead-zones". Agricultural runoff containing the popular fertilizer nitrogen causes rapid and unnatural algae growth. These blooms can be massive and ultimately reduce the oxygen as they block out sunlight to other organisms and die-off once the nutrients runout. Since adult oysters have the power of filtering up to 50 gallons of water a day, increasing the oyster population is an effective part of the long-term solution for restoring the health of our Bay.
By recycling our shells, we, as consumers, are ensuring the oyster circle of life gets completed so we can enjoy these delicious Chesapeake treasures for generations to come.