Jun 6, 2024 - News

Restaurants recycle oyster shells to revive reefs

Photo of thousands of oyster shells.

That's a whole lotta shells. Photo: Brett Coomer/Houston Chronicle via Getty Images

Tons of oyster shells are diverted from the landfill and used to build reefs in Galveston and reestablish habitats.

Why it matters: The oyster population has been declining for more than a decade. And since Hurricane Ike, there's been a more than 60% reduction in oyster habitats in Galveston, per the Galveston Bay Foundation.

  • Oysters help improve water quality, and oyster reefs can prevent erosion and serve as barriers to storms and tides.

How it works: The Galveston Bay Foundation works with more than 30 restaurants to collect used oyster shells. Roughly 200 tons of shells are collected yearly, per Sally Clark, the foundation's habitat restoration manager.

  • These shells are then cured under the sun in piles for six months to ensure that they are rid of any bacteria or other pathogens before eventually being used to build oyster reefs along the Galveston Bay shore and deeper in the sea.

What they're saying: "Oysters are a really important ecological species for Galveston Bay. They increase water quality, provide habitat for other marine species, protect adjacent shorelines. So they're really a keystone species in Galveston Bay," Clark tells Axios.

  • "Our goal in returning the shell to the bay is to provide a substrate that the baby oysters can attach to and start growing on."

Flashback: This began in 2011 when Tom Tollett, owner of Tommy's Seafood Restaurant & Oyster Bar, came to the foundation to look for oyster shell recycling options.

  • Since then, the Galveston Bay Foundation — with various funding, including a $2.5 million grant from the BP oil spill mitigation fund — has gathered 1,700 tons of shells, and more than 800 tons have back gone into the bay in various projects, per Clark. The rest are still curing.

What we're watching: The Galveston Bay Foundation regularly checks the planted oyster reefs to see if they are bringing in oysters and "functioning as we hope." So far, Clark says, the foundation has seen success, with the reefs "recruiting oysters and recruiting growth."

Go deeper: Building a climate-resilient Galveston.

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