CIB urges restaurants ‘Don’t Chuck Your Shucks’

Date Published: 
March 14, 2014

The Delaware Center for the Inland Bays (CIB) was recently awarded a grant from the Department of Natural Resources and Environmental Control’s (DNREC’s) Universal Recycling Grant & Loan Program, to launch “Don’t Chuck Your Shucks” — a program aiming to encourage people to recycle oyster shells for use in restoration projects on the Inland Bays.

“The grant was more geared toward restaurants trying to recycle more recyclables — cardboard, plastic. DNREC wants to help get that out of the trash stream and the landfills,” explained E.J. Chalabala, aquatic restoration coordinator for the CIB. “I gave them a call and spoke to Jim Short and said, ‘Here’s an interesting concept… What do you think about recycling oysters and keeping them out of the landfills?’”

Chalabala subsequently applied for the grant, and the CIB received $23,450 to kick-start the program.

“It’s just a resource that’s needed. There’s not a program in Delaware, but most of the states that surround us have an oyster-recycling program,” he said, noting that the CIB has had its own small-scale program for a few years. “It’s just time. This is really the next step. We need oysters and to make new oysters. You make oyster reeds out in the bays and in the waterways. You bag these oysters up and use them for living shoreline projects. It’s just a really good natural resource that’s in limited quantities.”

Through the program, the center hopes to partner with 10 to 15 area restaurants in its first year. The program will have its own logo and brochure and a person who will help carry out the day-to-day aspects of the program.

“For tourists and locals going into restaurants, we hope to provide these restaurants with a small tin bucket with the logo on it that lets people put the oyster shells in them. They can have an active role by putting their own shells into this bucket, and it’s easier for the waiter and restaurant to put them in the desired can we give them outside,” said Chalabala. “It just brings the consumer in on the process, that an oyster that they eat now can be used to help what they’re eating in the future. It’s interesting to think about.”

Chalabala said that the center is not sure how many oysters shells they will receive at first, and they may incorporate recycling clamshells if they’re in need of more shells.

“It’s going to be a learning process, but we know restaurants are interested.”

The CIB hopes to give each restaurant five 50-gallon barrels in which the oyster shells may be stored. The center will then collect the oysters from the restaurants once or twice a week.

“During the peak summer season, we hope to recycle 10,000 pounds of shells per week, putting what had gone to a landfill to good use,” said Chalabala, adding that the center will also be able to collect valuable data through the program.

He added that the center is working on finalizing a site where the oysters will be cured for six to eight months before they’re ready to be used for various projects.

“You can’t just put the oysters in the water, because they still have a little bit of organic material on the shell. We need weather, basically — sun, rain — to dry up and wash away the organics so we can use a nice dry, clean oyster for our projects.”

In the past, the center has collected oyster shells to be used for their oyster gardening program.

“We bag up the shells we do collect at the Georgetown Oyster Eat. I always park my old beater truck next to that, and they’d dump their old oyster shells into the truck. I’d go shovel it out, and that’s what we used for the oyster gardener program,” explained Chalabala. “We put them in a tank with our oyster larvae, and they attach to the oyster shell. We then take the bags and give them to our gardeners, and that’s what they grow.”

Oyster shell has also traditionally been used to build roads, driveways and houses, with unused shell going to landfills — the latter of which Chalabala said the program aims to help reduce.

“It keeps them out of the landfill. There’s no need for this desirable product to go to no use. This product doesn’t need to put off any essential gases that are collected in landfills these days. They just sit there… and I can’t even tell you how long it takes for them to break down.”

The recycled shells will be used for living shoreline projects, restoration of “bay bottom,” the oyster gardening program and research projects.

“It’ll be interesting, and I know it’ll be a popular program, with the oyster shells going to good use,” said Chalabala. “We’re doing a shellfish plan now to find areas and methods we can use to get more hard substrate in the bottom, to get more live oysters to set on the shell.

“We’ve noticed throughout the years that more and more oysters are being found on riprap, the erosion-control rocks. We know oyster larvae are in the system. They just need a place to go. Oysters grow on other oysters. That is how an oyster reef is formed. It’s just a positive thing all around.”

The Inland Bays once supported an abundant population of oysters that was lost decades ago due to disease and pollution. But over the past 11 years, the oyster gardening program — a joint project of the CIB and Delaware Sea Grant — has demonstrated that oysters can now thrive in all three Inland Bays once again.

“Our oysters were grown here and shipped up to the cities way back in the day. We’ve just been known to have oysters. It’s time to start collecting the shells and help out the oyster population, because it’s been decimated in the past. In the ’60s and ’70s, disease and harvesting took its toll in the inland bays. We hope to enhance the population and help bring it back.”

Because a single oyster can filter up to 50 gallons of water each day, removing nutrients that are the greatest pollution threat to the bays, a restored oyster population in the Inland Bays could also greatly improve the bays’ water quality. In addition, oyster beds are considered important habitats that support many other bay species.

The program has been well received, Chalabala said, and the center has now partnered with the Delaware Chapter of the Nature Conservancy and Delaware Seashore State Park, along with DNREC.

“We want to make it a partnership where we can all come together,” said Chalabala.

He added that he believes the program will be a good complement to House Bill 160, which now permits shellfish aquaculture in Delaware’s Inland Bays. Under the bill, commercial shellfish farmers would be permitted to lease 1- to 5-acre tracts of shellfish grounds in Delaware’s Inland Bays — up to 5 acres in the Rehoboth and Indian River bays combined and up to 5 additional acres in Little Assawoman Bay.

“We hope to see even more shells being used due to aquaculture,” said Chalabala.

Chalabala said he hopes the program will be well received and grow to the point where oyster recycling bins will be located throughout the state, for residents to recycle their own shells.

“We’re not ready for that quite yet, and we need to see how much we are going to handle,” he said. “I want to see this program possibly go statewide within five to 10 years.

“This program is our oyster. It can go as far as we want it to go.”

For more information on the program or how a restaurant can participate, call E.J. Chalabala at (302) 226-8105, or visit the Center for the Inland Bay’s website at www.inlandbays.org.