VCU Rice Center

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News and events
Jan. 27, 2014

VCU Rice Rivers Center's Virginia Oyster Shell Recycling Program

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VCU Rice Rivers Center's oyster shells for recycling.

The wild Eastern oyster (Crassostrea virginica), also referred to as the Virginia oyster, in the Chesapeake Bay is at critical population levels due to increased water pollution, loss of habitat, over-harvesting and diseases that affect oysters. Historically, the Eastern oyster was a significant part of the Chesapeake Bay economy and, by the late 19th century, the harvest was approximately 17 million bushels of oysters per year. Today, the population is estimated to be at only 1 to 2 percent of the peak number. The most recent harvest numbers of oysters was in excess of 400,000 bushels, which is a significant increase from the 2001 harvest of 23,000 bushels; however, this is still far from the historic sustainable population.

Ecologically, natural oyster shell is the preferred substrate for growing new oysters but due to a decline in available shell from a reduced harvest, many restoration projects are relying on reclaimed clam shell, crushed concrete or reef balls as a surrogate for oyster shell for wild oysters to attach. The commonwealth of Virginia recently directed $2 million to the Virginia Marine Resources Commission to harvest one million bushels of fossilized oyster shell from the James River to support the replenishment of wild oyster reefs for private and commercial harvesting. While alternative materials for reef construction are a feasible option, the natural substrate is preferred strongly. Additionally, the commonwealth recently revised the outdated 19th-century oyster fee system on commercial harvesters and growers to a single annual fee. The 2012-2013 estimates are that the revised fee will generate $300,000 for replenishment of public oyster grounds.

A sustainable source for shell

Many restaurants in Virginia serve oysters in various forms: raw on the half-shell, baked, roasted, fried, stewed or myriad other ways. To meet the public demand for oysters, the seafood industry is beginning to rely on the aquaculture industry to support the production and distribution of Eastern oysters. In Virginia, the 2008 harvest of aquaculture oysters was nearly ten million, and in 2011, more than 23 million. The most recent report from the Virginia Institute for Marine Science indicated the 2012 harvest of aquaculture oysters sold by Virginia growers to be over 28 million, and generating an estimated $30 million, annually. Many growers are using cages for their culture, but an increasing number are seeing the value of “spat-on-shell” or the culture of young oysters on used oyster shell, replicating a natural attachment substrate. Due to its limited availability, oyster shell has become a sought after commodity. Prices for the purchase of oyster shell ranges from $2.75-3.00 a bushel for dirty, un-aged shell to $4.50 a bushel for clean, aged shell ready for spat-on-shell production.

VCU Rice Rivers Center shell collection and recycling

VCU Rice Rivers Center has piloted a successful Richmond regional effort to collect restaurant-generated oyster shells for the purpose of enhancing the Chesapeake Bay oyster restoration efforts at sanctuary sites. These sanctuary sites prohibit the removal of oysters and provide critical habitat for wild oyster production and fin fisheries. Beginning in May 2013, VCU partnered with the Virginia Green Travel Program, Chesapeake Bay Foundation, City of Richmond, Tidewater Fiber Corporation, Virginia Master Naturalist Program, Virginia Coastal Zone Management Program, Rappahannock River Oyster Company and four Richmond-based restaurants (Rappahannock Restaurant, Lemaire at the Jefferson Hotel, Acacia Mid-Town and Pearl Raw Bar) to collect used oyster shell that was being directed to the landfill. The purpose of this pilot was to conduct an on-the-ground feasibility analysis to determine if the necessary components could be developed to collect this restaurant-generated shell. The pilot project was essentially a zero budget approach to coordinate partners around the single vision — to collect and return used oyster shell to the Virginia portion of the Chesapeake Bay for the purpose of wild oyster restoration. The VCU program manager coordinated the initial efforts to obtain participation from the restaurants and the Virginia Master Naturalists.

The pilot began the collection of shell in mid-August 2013 using volunteer labor from the Virginia Master Naturalists and Chesapeake Bay program, Volunteers as Chesapeake Stewards, or VoiCes. In four months, more than 11,600 lbs. of oyster shell were collected from the participating restaurants, the 17th Street Farmers’ Market Shockoe on the Half-shell Oysterfest, St. Thomas Episcopal Oystoberfest and the Richmond Folk Festival.

Oysters collected are transported to the Chesapeake Bay Foundation Oyster Restoration Office in Gloucester Point, Va. The shells are aged for approximately six months and are seeded with oyster spat and returned to oyster sanctuaries to supplement natural recruitment.

VCU Rice Rivers Center's Virginia Oyster Shell Recycling Program has collected in excess of six tons of oyster shell since the inception; projections indicate collection totals will increase markedly as the public-private efforts increase. A number of local businesses have approached the program manager with interest in participating in this effort to assist with the restoration of the Virginia oyster.

For further information, please contact program manager, Todd Janeski, at