PORT REPUBLIC, NJ – Call it the seafood circle of life: the shells thrown by diners are collected, cleaned and thrown into the waterways of the country and the world, where they form the basis of new oyster colonies.
One of the latest such projects is taking place in Atlantic City, where a casino and two other restaurants save shells left behind by their diners. The shells are then collected by the State Department of Environmental Protection, and workers and volunteers at Rutgers and Stockton Universities and the Jetty Rock Foundation load them onto barges and dump them into the Mullica River.
This waterway is home to one of the last remaining self-sustaining oyster populations on the Atlantic coast, according to Shawn LaTourette, state environment commissioner. Clams, oysters, and other shells form the basis of new or enlarged oyster colonies when free-floating baby oysters, called spat, attach to the shells and begin to grow on them.
“You not only benefit from ecological restoration, but it has kept 65 tonnes of shellfish from ending up in landfills,” said Scott Stueber, fisheries biologist at DEP. This helps restaurants save on waste disposal costs.
The program started in 2019 and currently collects oysters from Hard Rock Casino, Knife & Fork Restaurant, and Dock’s Oyster House in Atlantic City. Several other casinos have expressed interest in joining.
“We go through a ton of these seashells in our restaurants,” said Grace Chow, vice president of food and beverage for Hard Rock. “The buffet on a slow day will scale 500 oysters and on a busy day, 1200.”
Oysters are nature’s filters: a single adult oyster can filter particles and contaminants from 50 gallons of water per day. In addition to improving water quality, oyster colonies are also being planted along the coasts as a strategy for shoreline stabilization and storm mitigation: bumpy underwater colonies can act as speed bumps for them. destructive waves moving towards the shore, dissipating some of their energy.
The aim is not so much to create new places to harvest and sell oysters for consumption as to improve the environment.
In New Jersey, oysters can be harvested for commercial purposes in Delaware Bay, and the state has a strong aquaculture industry that cultivates them. The Mullica River project aims to cultivate oysters for ecological purposes, but it is under consideration for possible approval as a commercial harvest site in the future, DEP said.
Communities, environmental groups and governments around the world have embraced oyster recycling and replanting over the past decades.
In Maryland, the Chesapeake Bay Foundation turns 2,000 bushels of recycled shellfish per year into oyster habitat in the bay. In Texas, the Harte Research Institute at Texas A&M University has collected 1.75 million pounds of shellfish and restored 25 acres of oyster reefs since 2009.
The Billion Oyster Project of New York has collected 1.6 million pounds of shellfish from 75 restaurants and has planted 13 oyster reefs in New York Harbor since 2015. Florida has several such programs, including one in the Apalachicola Bay, and the Alabama Coastal Foundation has collected 15.5 million seashells in less than five years.
In Massachusetts, many cities have oyster recycling programs, including the “Shuck It For Nantucket” program, and similar efforts exist in Wellfleet and Martha’s Vineyard.
The effort extends to Australia, where The Nature Conservancy’s “Shuck, Don’t Chuck” program recycles oysters to restore colonies in places like Port Phillip Bay.
In New Jersey, several such programs exist, including one run by the American Littoral Society and another by the Township of Long Beach.
For the Atlantic City project, the state tours restaurants once a week with a trailer, hauling the seashells to a research station on Nacote Creek in Port Republic. There they are left to dry for at least six months so that any remaining meat or foreign substances on the shells cook.
When they have hardened sufficiently, the shells are loaded onto a barge and withdrawn into the Mullica River. Workers aboard the barge use high-pressure hoses to blast the 10-foot-high stacks of shells into the water, accomplishing in less than an hour what would take much longer if shoveled overboard.
Approximately 3,000 bushels of shellfish will be deposited in the river this year. Russ Babb, head of DEP’s shellfish harvesting bureau, hopes to eventually increase that amount to 10,000 bushels per year.
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