Oct 29, 2021 - Climate

Charlotte restaurants send millions of oyster shells to the dump each year. They could be put to better use

oysters waterman

Oysters at The Waterman in South End. Photo: Emma Way/Axios

Paul Manley’s Charlotte restaurants shuck about 1 million oysters a year, and at least for now, all of the shells go to the landfill.

He’d like to change that.

As Manley and his business partners prepare to open another location of The Waterman Fish Bar in Cornelius early next year, Manley is simultaneously working to create an oyster-shell collection program that would help replenish North Carolina’s living shoreline.

Why it matters: Many scientists, watermen and policymakers now agree that more natural shorelines — oysters, plants and other living organisms — actually provide better long-term protection for people and property than manmade walls.

  • Oysters grow on top of other oyster shells and create natural reefs.
  • Manley wants to get as many restaurants in Charlotte as possible to participate, to limit the oyster shell waste our area creates.

Driving the news: This past weekend, McClatchy’s newspapers ran a big series of stories warning that North Carolina could lose up to 34% of its existing salt wetlands by 2060, and 75% by 2100.

  • In other words, when a kid born today turns 80, our state will have only a quarter of the wetlands left.
  • Scientists and environmentalists have spent the past two decades asking people to contribute to natural shorelines, which, as it happens, offer much more protection to property overall than manmade bulkheads.
  • A 2021 study says that marshlands prevented $200 billion in property damage each year, McClatchy reported.
  • Virginia’s legislature passed a bill in 2020 mandating living shorelines unless “best available science” shows a need for a man-made structure.

Why it matters to Charlotte: We don’t have salt marshes here, obviously, but everything’s connected. People in larger inland cities like ours can not only contribute to better shorelines, we can help tip political and policy scales by showing that we’re paying attention, too.

  • In other words, coastal people can’t save the coast by themselves.
  • “All your oyster lovers should care,” Manley told me earlier this week. “Or anyone who likes local seafood at all. It’s relevant here as it is (at the coast).”

The big picture: Manley and partners Andrew Chapman and Dennis Thompson own Sea Level, the Waterman, and Ace No. 3.

For the seafood spots, they have a partnership with an oyster farm in Carteret County. They don’t expand their restaurant franchise until the oyster farm has scaled up to handle the production.

  • Manley visits the family that grows the oysters regularly. They’re fourth or fifth generation watermen, he says, and the farm’s on a peninsula in Jarrett Bay. They can point to areas that used to be grasslands that now aren’t.
  • Manley’s long pondered his role, as a more prominent buyer of oysters, in the overall health of our coast.

Be smart: To understand why oyster shell recycling is among the most important things we can do for our waterways, you have to understand how an oyster grows.

  • Each spring when the water hits 68 degrees and 68 degrees exactly, male and female oysters release sperm and eggs. They meet at the surface and form larva so small that a million can fit in your cupped human hand.
  • After a few weeks there, the offspring dives to the bottom in search of a hard surface — preferably an oyster shell. Once they attach to a hard surface, they’re known as spat.
  • They’ll live there forever, chowing on whatever nutrients fall to them.
  • The more oysters that pile on, the higher the wall. Only this wall is made of living beings that can filter 50 gallons of water per day.

Several centuries ago, European settlers pulling into the estuaries along the southeastern coast reported seeing mountains in the water, but they were actually oyster shells. They were a sign not just of rich and healthy waterways, but also of a rich and healthy land.

My thought bubble: I’m rather passionate about this topic, if you couldn’t tell! But if a person has to be an ambassador for something, I suppose a bivalve that can filter 50 gallons of water a day and protect our coastline is a pretty good one.

  • “The work that oysters do is incredible,” Manley says. “It’s the most carbon-neutral protein you can grow. It creates a better environment than it inherits.”

The bottom line: Kudos to the McClatchy team — the N&O’s Adam Wagner specifically — for doing this big project.

It was the talk of an oyster fundraiser Manley attended this past weekend, he tells me, and it will only help make sure it’s at the forefront of the minds of legislators and business community throughout the southeast.

For more reading: Here’s a story I wrote on oysters, and the N.C. Coastal Federation’s efforts to build natural shorelines, for Our State in 2011.

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