Workers aboard a barge laden with 680 bushels of clam and oyster shells use high-pressure hoses to blast the shells into the Mullica River in Port Republic, New Jersey. (AP/Wayne Parry)

Workers aboard a barge laden with 680 bushels of clam and oyster shells use high-pressure hoses to blast the shells into the Mullica River in Port Republic, New Jersey. (AP/Wayne Parry)

This pile of oyster, clam, and whelk shells is drying in the sunshine. The clean and dry shells will go back into the river. Free-floating baby oysters will attach to them and grow. (AP/Wayne Parry)

This pile of oyster, clam, and whelk shells is drying in the sunshine. The clean and dry shells will go back into the river. Free-floating baby oysters will attach to them and grow. (AP/Wayne Parry)

A barge carries shells to the river. (AP/Wayne Parry)

A barge carries shells to the river. (AP/Wayne Parry)

New Jersey Environmental Protection Commissioner Shawn LaTourette, left, uses a high-pressure hose to blast clam and oyster shells into the Mullica River. (AP/Wayne Parry)

New Jersey Environmental Protection Commissioner Shawn LaTourette, left, uses a high-pressure hose to blast clam and oyster shells into the Mullica River. (AP/Wayne Parry)

Oysters filter water and stabilize shorelines.

Oysters filter water and stabilize shorelines.

Seafood Circle of Life

Posted: September 1, 2021

“The buffet on a slow day will shuck 500 oysters, and on a busy day, 1,200,” says Grace Chow. She’s the vice president of food and beverages at Hard Rock Casino in Atlantic City, New Jersey. That produces hundreds of thousands of shells every year! What happens to discarded oyster shells is part of a seafood circle of life. Diners’ empty shells can help establish new oyster colonies.

First, people collect and clean the shells. In Atlantic City, the state picks up oyster shells with a trailer. Workers haul them to a research station. They set the shells out to dry for at least six months. That dry time makes sure any meat or foreign substances bakes off or decays from the shells. Dry, clean shells get loaded onto a barge that sets off into the river. Workers use high-pressure hoses to blast the 10-foot-tall piles of shells into the water. WHOOSH! SPLASH! The hoses make the job easy. It takes less than an hour to wash thousands of shells into the river.

In the water, the shells will become new oyster colonies. Free-floating baby oysters called spat hop on board the recycled shells. Spat attach themselves to the calcium-rich remains and begin to grow. 

Oyster-saving programs are going on around the world. With fun names like “Shuck it for Nantucket,” and “Shuck, Don’t Chuck,” more and more restaurants are casting oyster shells overboard. In Maryland, the Chesapeake Bay Foundation turns 2,000 bushels of recycled shells per year into oyster habitat in the bay. The state of Texas collected 1.75 million pounds of shells and returned them to water. Texans also restored 25 acres of oyster reefs. New York, Florida, and Alabama and Australia have their own oyster collection projects.

Back in the water, the shells make a huge impact on the ecosystem—as well as the food chain. Oysters are water filters. One adult oyster can filter 50 gallons of water each day. Oyster colonies stabilize shorelines. They also serve as speed bumps by slowing down big waves.

Oyster restoration projects are a big win! “You have the benefit not only of ecological restoration, but [keeping] . . . tons of shells out of landfills,” says Scott Stueber, a fisheries biologist.