Come Shell or High Water: Oyster Shell Recycling Along Louisiana?s Coastline
Sep 28 2017

Come Shell or High Water: Oyster Shell Recycling Along Louisiana's Coastline

By: Kathy Bradshaw

Oysters Rockefeller. Oysters Royale. Oyster dressing. Panko-crusted oysters over bibb lettuce with a champagne vinaigrette… 

New Orleans loves her oysters. Loves them a million times over, as millions of oysters are served every year in New Orleans restaurants and residences. And the city loves them in so many ways—on the half shell, roasted, chargrilled, doused in your favorite sauce… 

But if there’s one thing that might taste even better than hot sauce on that fried oyster po-boy, it’s a little dollop of saving the world. Starting with our own state of Louisiana. 

So, volunteer. Raise money for charity. Drive a Prius. Or, just eat oysters.

Thanks to the Coalition to Restore Coastal Louisiana (CRCL)’s Oyster Shell Recycling Program, you can join the ranks of do-gooders and Good Samaritans by simply stuffing your face with oysters. Rather than, say, sweating it out in the hot sun picking up trash beside the I-10, you can pick up a worthwhile cause by simply sitting back and slurping oysters in a posh dining room of one of New Orleans’s finest restaurants.

Come Shell or High Water: Oyster Shell Recycling Along Louisiana’s Coastline

The CRCL, who promotes the motto, “Once you shuck ‘em, don’t just chuck ‘em!”, collects discarded oyster shells from local restaurants and recycles them, turning them into new oyster reefs built along the Louisiana coastline. We all know the troubles of coastal erosion. Louisiana is washing away—at a rate of about a football field’s worth of land every hour, according to the CRCL website. In fact, we are losing land faster than anywhere else in the country.

But the CRCL is working to stop that. The Oyster Shell Recycling Program was started in June of 2014, and since that time, the CRCL has managed to gather almost 3,000 tons of oyster shells from New Orleans restaurants. That’s the equivalent of a quarter of the weight of the Eiffel Tower, or the weight of a thousand giraffes. Last year, 1.7 million pounds (approximately 850 tons) of these recycled shells were used to create a half-mile-long reef in Biloxi Marsh, designed to counteract the erosive effects of waves and storm surge on the diminishing coastline. The next reef to be built is planned for 2019 in Barataria Basin in Creole Bay. The CRCL has already begun collecting truckloads of oyster shells in preparation.


The Oyster Shell Recycling Program was started in June of 2014, and since that time, the CRCL has managed to gather almost 3,000 tons of oyster shells from New Orleans restaurants. 

That’s the equivalent of a quarter of the weight of the Eiffel Tower, or the weight of a thousand giraffes.


The oyster shells and the reefs they form have many benefits. Not only do they help sustain our coastlines against erosion, improve water quality, and allow for crucial research, they also provide a habitat for fish and other wildlife, including the oysters themselves. Oysters shack up and form happy mollusk communities around these reefs, and baby oysters use the discarded shells of older generations of bivalves to set up residence where they can grow into tasty morsels for you to eat. So, go ahead, eat oysters. Recycle the shells. By doing so, you’ll help create even more oysters to eat. It’s the circle of life in an oyster-hungry world.

And, with the state of Louisiana as the top producer of oysters in the U.S—producing a third of all the oysters in the country—these oyster reefs are also a huge boost to the local and state economy. In fact, of all the oysters eaten in the nation, 70 percent (or 1.3 million tons annually) come from Louisiana. In other words, our state produces 45 times the weight of the Statue of Liberty in oysters every year! That’s a lot of oyster shells to be recycled.

Come Shell or High Water: Oyster Shell Recycling Along Louisiana’s Coastline

Standing atop a huge mountain of recycled oyster shells in Buras, Louisiana, Hillary Collis, the former Restoration Program Director for the CRCL, explained, “We experience what we call a shell deficit, in that about 60 percent of shell that is removed from our coast is not returned to help build and sustain future oyster reefs.” Instead of completing their round-trip journey back to the Gulf again, most of these shells end up thrown in the trash and dumped into landfills, where they do no one any good. Which is what the CRCL is trying to avoid by getting local restaurants involved in amassing shells—100 percent of which will be brought back home to Louisiana waters. 

There are currently 13 restaurants who participate in the Oyster Recycling Program—from Arnaud’s to Pêche to oyster experts Drago’s—with more restaurants sure to jump on the shell-recycling bandwagon soon. The CRCL makes it easy for restaurants to take part in the program by providing 35-gallon plastic oyster shell recycling bins to every participating restaurant and then picking up the full bins five days a week. The organization is actively recruiting more oyster-centric institutions (restaurants, shucking houses, seafood processors) to join their program, and hopes to eventually spread the oyster love beyond New Orleans to Baton Rouge and other cities. The world is their oyster.


Participating restaurants include: Arnaud’s, Borgne, Bourbon House, Cooter Brown’s, Desire, Drago’s, Elysian Seafood, Pêche, Red Fish Grill, Remoulade, Restaurant R'evolution, Tracey's & Two Girls One Shuck


Austin Kirzner, Executive Chef at Red Fish Grill, one of the restaurants involved with the Oyster Recycling Program, said, "We shuck tons of sacks of oysters each year. And for them to not go into landfills but to go back into the Gulf, has been a really easy transition for us. The program has given us the vessels for it; they come pick them up. It's really a seamless operation."

And just in case eating tasty “ersters” seems too easy and painless to feel like you’re making a difference, you can also step up your oyster activism to full-on volunteerism. The CRCL is always looking for volunteers to help prepare oyster shells for their use in the reef. Since 2015, over 400 volunteers have lent their shell-prep skills to ready over 260 tons of oyster shells (65 times the weight of a hippo) for their final resting place in new reefs.

Come Shell or High Water: Oyster Shell Recycling Along Louisiana’s Coastline

Never underestimate the power of the oyster. Besides being renowned for their ability to induce feelings of love and sexual prowess as an aphrodisiac, produce the occasional pearl, and provide shells that are an excellent source of calcium and great material for artsy/crafty folks (as in homemade oyster shell Christmas ornaments, ashtrays, and candleholders), oysters are also especially hearty and industrious critters. A single oyster can filter up to 50 gallons of water a day. That’s enough water to fill 300 Starbucks “venti” coffee cups or nearly three beer kegs. And soon, oysters just might help save our depleting coastline. 

To put it another way, oysters mean good food, good sex, good teeth, good jewelry, and, just maybe, good coastlines. But only with your help. So, what are you waiting for? Go on, give ‘em shell.

For more information on the Oyster Shell Recycling Program, go to crcl.org. 

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