VCU Rice Center

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Virginia Oyster Shell Recycling Program


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 one to two 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. The 400,000 bushels generated an estimated $42 million in revenue for the 2013 year and is a growing employer helping the local coastal economies.

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What do oysters do?

Oysters benefit the natural environment by filtering 50-60 gallons of water per day of phytoplankton, suspended sediment and nutrient pollution. This pollution isn’t the toxic pollution pouring out of the end of a pipe; these are nutrients which contain nitrogen and phosphorus and come from land-based sources like excess lawn fertilizer that is not taken up by the plants and soil. Nutrients are transported to the Chesapeake Bay through rainwater runoff and lead to increased algae production such as “Red Tides”, reduced water clarity and areas of no oxygen called, “dead zones”. Oysters remove the algae and suspended sediment from the water, improving the clarity to allow aquatic grasses to grow. The grasses are critical habitat for young fish and crabs. Oysters also grow on top of one another, forming reefs. These reefs are valuable hard bottom habitat for blue crabs (Callinectes sapidus) , finfish such as striped bass (Morone saxatilis) , spotted seatrout (Cynoscion nebulosus) , red drum (Sciaenops ocellatus) , and bay grasses such as eel grass (Zostera marina) .

Why oyster shell?

Ecologically, natural oyster shell is the preferred substrate for growing new oysters due to the complex surface areas available in an oyster reef for young oysters (spat) to attach and grow. Natural shell is also the preferred substrate for restoration projects for restoration at both sanctuary sites and public harvest areas (like Baylor Grounds). However, 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. Natural oyster shell is often seeded with spat prior to planting on oyster bars to improve the success of the restoration projects.

In 2013, the Virginia Marine Resources Commission invested $2M to dredge fossilized shell for restoration efforts. This is a perfectly acceptable method for shell generation but from an economic standpoint may be viewed as an expensive option. The $2M sourced approximately 1M bushels of shells and was very beneficial in the replenishment efforts. The VMRC will allocate another $2M for the 2014 year to continue implementing restoration plans.

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 10 million, and in 2011, over 23 million. The most recent report from the Virginia Institute for Marine Science indicated the 2013 harvest of aquaculture oysters sold by Virginia growers to be over 30 million, and contributing to the estimated $42 million annual value for the industry as a whole.

Unfortunately, many restaurants saw oyster shell as a waste product and added them to their waste stream.

What do we do?

VCU Rice Rivers Center 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, called the Virginia Oyster Shell Recycling Program (VOSRP). 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, 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 demonstrate a proof of concept and 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 Rice Rivers Center, partnering with the Virginia Green Travel Program, 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 local Virginia Master Naturalists chapters and Chesapeake Bay Program Volunteers as Chesapeake Stewards (VoiCes). In four months, nearly 12,000 lbs. of oyster shell was collected from the participating restaurants, the 17th St 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 6 months and are seeded with oyster spat and returned to oyster sanctuaries to supplement natural recruitment.

How does this work?

Restaurants are provided with sealed containers to fill with empty oyster shells. On a regular, scheduled basis, the containers are transported by VOSRP associates to a centralized storage facility. The emptied containers are returned to the restaurants and businesses the same day.

Who is recycling their shell?

Who is involved?

The previous recycling partners, plus:

  • Chesapeake Bay Foundation
  • City of Richmond
  • Master Naturalists Riverine Chapter
  • Nature Conservancy
  • Starbucks River Road II
  • Tidewater Fiber Corporation
  • VA Green
  • VCU and the Rice Rivers Center
  • Virginia Coastal Zone Management Program
  • Virginia Seafood Council
  • Virginia Sea Grant
  • Whole Foods

How can you become more involved?

  • Ask your favorite restaurant if they recycle their shells.
  • If they don’t, direct them to the VOSRP.
  • Recycle your own shells at either the Yellow Umbrella, the Farmers Market at St. Stephens, or Little House Green Grocery.
  • If you have a home on the river, grow oysters and help with the CBF restoration efforts by becoming an oyster gardener.
  • Volunteer with the VA Oyster Shell Recycling Program. As the program grows, we need volunteers to help move shells, help at special events, help with fund raising or organizing events and help with marketing and development of communication materials.
  • For further information, please contact Program Manager Todd Janeski at