Galveston Bay Foundation using oysters to rebuild reef

GALVESTON, Texas – Have you ever wondered what happens to your shucked oyster shells at a restaurant? Traditionally, they would be tossed in the trash with other table scraps, but recent conservation groups are turning that trash into treasure.

Galveston Bay Foundation’s Oyster Shell Recycling Program is encouraging local restaurants to help our bay.

Haille Leija, Galveston Bay Foundation Restoration Manager, explained, “Oysters are born into the water as little, microscopic larvae, so about after two weeks of life, they start to gain weight as they feed and descend into the water column, and they go in search of something hard to attach to.”

Oysters prefer to attach to cement to other shells or oysters because they are reef-building organisms.

“Sometimes those baby oysters will grow about an inch in three months. The legal size is three inches, so you can get a legal oyster within a year,” said Leija.

Shannon Batte GBF’s Habitat Restoration Coordinator collects oyster shells from 26 Houston-area restaurants including Goode Company Restaurants.

“Conservation and sustainability are very important to me and to our organization,” said Levi Goode, chef and owner of Goode Company Restaurants. “Just in the last month, we have given back a ton and a half of oyster shells, just shucking oysters and feeding our customers.”

Pat Murray, Coastal Conservation Association President said, “It starts with awareness; it starts with knowing what the restaurant you’re eating at does with their shells and then all of the sudden it opens doors to coastal ecology. They are critical. Probably more so than people know. They probably get their most credit for being a filter feeder. They filter up to 50 gallons a day, per oyster, that’s pretty incredible. But what they do for marine resource, as in terms of marine ecology, and what they do for our bay systems, our estuaries, is priceless.”

“If we lose that population, we are losing that water quality and habitats for other organisms to live,” Batte added. “I collect all the bins that have shell in it, and then I head to the next restaurant. At the end of the day, I take it to our curing site and that’s where we dump the shell out onto the ground and it will sit there for at least six months to get rid of any of the containments on the shell, left over cheese, food.”

At a separate Red Bluff Curing site, the work continues.

“We separate it out into different piles, so we know what’s fresh and what still needs to be cured and cleaned. That shell then sits in a pile until it reaches about 18 inches, until that time, that pile is essentially stopped, then we move to the next one to start a fresh pile,” explained Leija. “We give that pile enough time to cure and be exposed to the sun throughout that process. We come and turn it with a tractor to expose any shells underneath to all that weathering. We are seeing lots of success, particularly in the west bay of the system. It’s where it stayed saltier, even with all the freshwater events coming through with hurricane Harvey, and those previous years of flooding, northern parts of the bay are still suffering quite a bit. The reason we started all of this is because there was a loss of this habitat, Hurricane Ike, and other subsequent storms have brought in so much sediment. It literally covered up those reefs.” 

Once cleaned and cured, oyster shells are brought back to the bay where they build and restore oyster beds to strengthen oyster populations and reduce coastal erosion.

Since the program began in 2011, Galveston Bay Foundation has collected more than 1,320 tons of oyster shells. GBF volunteers have helped recruit over 49,000 baby oysters onto recycled shells through GBF’s Volunteer Oyster Gardening Program.

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