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Gulf Coast: Oyster Shell Recycling Key to Sustainable Seafood and Coastal Protection

March 06, 2024

With $5 million in NOAA funds, Gulf Coast partners will expand efforts to restore oyster populations, protect vanishing land, and reconnect communities to their coastal heritage.

Volunteers build an oyster reef from recycled oyster shells (Photo: Galveston Bay Foundation) Volunteers build an oyster reef from recycled oyster shells (Photo: Galveston Bay Foundation)

Sitting in one of New Orleans’ popular seafood restaurants, you wouldn’t know that oysters from the Gulf Coast are in trouble. Locals and tourists slurp down raw oysters by the dozen. They enjoy Oysters Rockefeller in the same restaurant where the dish was invented in 1889. It’s clear oysters are an essential part of the Gulf economy and culture, and have been since indigenous people used them as a primary food source. 

However, overharvesting, human-caused disasters like the Deepwater Horizon oil spill, and sedimentation caused by powerful storms have reduced historic oyster populations in the Gulf by 85 percent or more. The decline of oysters threatens livelihoods and the health of coastal ecosystems where they are a keystone species.

In response, many community-supported nonprofits embrace oyster shell recycling as one solution to the daunting challenges facing the Gulf Coast. They use recycled oyster shells to build new reefs where baby oysters can grow. These reefs also serve as natural breakwaters that protect coastlines from the impact of storms and sea-level rise.

To bolster these efforts, NOAA’s Office of Habitat Conservation awarded $5 million to Restore America’s Estuaries through the Bipartisan Infrastructure Law and Inflation Reduction Act. This project will restore oyster reef habitat in Louisiana, Florida, Alabama, and Texas. The funds will allow project partners to:

  • Expand oyster recycling efforts and community outreach at five established programs
  • Build new oyster reefs and living shorelines
  • Establish new oyster recycling programs in the Gulf
  • Support a learning exchange between regional oyster recycling programs
  • Engage more diverse, under-resourced communities in restoration work

Additional project partners include:

“Currently, the oyster supply chain is linear and extractive with oysters going to restaurants and the majority of those shells going into a landfill,” says Michael Biros, Restoration Programs Director for Coalition to Restore Coastal Louisiana. “We’re working to close the loop so that shells go back in the water where they can grow new oysters and help protect these communities.”

Why the Gulf Coast Needs Oysters

Almost half of the United States’ $250 million oyster industry is based on the Gulf Coast.  Oysters support the livelihoods of fishermen, oyster farmers, and seafood processors and help generate income for restaurant staff and tourism businesses. Many marine species and shore birds rely on oysters for food.  Oyster reefs provide habitat and nursery grounds for crabs, shrimp, and fish such as flounder and striped bass. 

Plus, a single oyster can filter up to 50 gallons of water per day, removing algae and excess nutrients that degrade water quality. Cleaner water contributes to the survival of other species and allows the sun’s rays to reach sea grasses and other aquatic plants. 

Studies conducted in the Gulf of Mexico have shown that oyster reefs may reduce wave energy by 76 to 99 percent. Every breakwater counts in a region where rising sea levels and intensifying hurricanes consume land at a rate of up to one football field per every 100 minutes.

Jeremy Sullivan of Orange Beach, Alabama, enjoys oysters on the half shell at the Original Oyster House in Gulf Shores, Alabama. (Photo: Original Oyster House)
Jeremy Sullivan of Orange Beach, Alabama, enjoys oysters on the half shell at the Original Oyster House in Gulf Shores, Alabama. (Photo: Original Oyster House)

“Once You Shuck ’Em, Don’t Just Chuck ’Em!”

Growing more oysters is the logical first step for the species to recover. Baby oysters prefer to grow on other oysters’ shells. Oyster harvesting removes shells from the environment, so restoration practitioners partner with restaurants and processors to obtain shells and return them from where they came. NOAA partners with five oyster recycling programs in the Gulf—collectively, they have recycled millions of tons of shells. The new funds will allow them to expand their efforts and engage new restaurant partners.

“We recycled 16 tons of oyster shells last year,” says Aaron Bludorn, Chef and Owner of Bludorn and Navy Blue in Houston. Bludorn partners with the Galveston Bay Foundation, which will use NOAA funds for two oyster reef restoration projects in Texas.

“This is an easy lift for us,” says Bludorn. “You put a bin by the dish pit and then you move it next to the dumpster. The Galveston Bay Foundation collects the shells, washes and dries them, and then they use them. I think it’s important for chefs to support these projects because we're the ones with the microphone. People look to chefs for food and dining trends. We have to be the example for operating sustainably.”

“When we were asked to participate, the answer was not only yes, but ‘oh my gosh, what a wonderful opportunity for us to enhance our environment and help more oysters grow,’” says Cecilia Mace, spokesperson for the Original Oyster House restaurants in Mobile and Gulf Shores, Alabama. The Original Oyster House works with the Alabama Coastal Foundation, which has recovered 22.6 million shells since 2016. With NOAA funds, the Alabama Coastal Foundation plans to deploy 2,250 cubic yards of shells to build a reef commercial oyster tongers will be allowed to harvest.

“With 85 percent of our natural reefs gone, the oyster shell recycling program is the hope in sustaining oysters and the economy that’s connected to them,” says Mace. “After all, Alabama is the #1 processor of oysters in the country.”

Volunteers gather bags of oyster shells to help protect ancient burial mounds belonging to the Pointe-au-Chien Tribe. (Photo: Coalition to Restore Coastal Louisiana)
Volunteers gather bags of oyster shells to help protect ancient burial mounds belonging to the Pointe-au-Chien Tribe. (Photo: Coalition to Restore Coastal Louisiana)

Protecting Sacred Land

All the reefs and living shorelines built by NOAA’s partners protect the Gulf’s vanishing land. The Coalition to Restore Coastal Louisiana is using NOAA funds to collect shells and build reefs that safeguard land and sacred sites for Indigenous tribes. Last year, several hundred volunteers and members of the Pointe-au-Chien tribe armored 400 feet of shoreline surrounding an ancient burial mound with 200 tons of bagged oyster shells. Louisiana has more than 800 historic mounds, some older than the Egyptian pyramids. Many are at risk of being swallowed by the water.

"It is very important to protect our land because we are so connected to it like our ancestors before us,” says Cherie Matherne, Cultural Heritage and Resiliency Coordinator for the Pointe-au-Chien Indian Tribe. “It's our job to not only preserve what's left, it’s to ensure our members who fish have an income. My husband is a crabber. That's how he supports my family. Putting out the oyster shells attracts crabs, shrimp, and fish. This work connects everything all together.”

A previous reef built on Pointe-au-Chien land held up against Hurricane Ida, the second-most damaging hurricane to make landfall in Louisiana after Katrina. The reef constructed in 2023 was funded by the U.S. Environmental Protection Agency with shells collected through the NOAA award. This year, with NOAA funds, the Coalition to Restore Coastal Louisiana will construct a reef with the Grand Bayou Indian Village. In 2025, they plan to work with the Grand Caillou/Dulac Band of Biloxi-Chitimacha-Choctaw . The organization will provide their tribal partners with a stipend to compensate them for their involvement.

An oyster gardener showing growth of new oysters (Photo: Galveston Bay Foundation)
An oyster gardener showing growth of new oysters (Photo: Galveston Bay Foundation)

Community Involvement Key to Long-Term Success

Including community members in the restoration process is essential for getting the work done and spreading the word about sustainable seafood.

“I think for restoration work to be successful and sustainable in the long term, the local community has to take ownership of it,” says Dan Hammond, an environmental scientist who volunteers with Tampa Bay Watch. 

In addition to other volunteer activities, Hammond and his son build vertical oyster gardens for Tampa Bay Watch. This involves installing strings of recycled oyster shells along docks or seawalls and monitoring them for the growth of baby oysters. “I go to my son’s classroom and involve the kids in building vertical oysters gardens,” says Hammond. “It’s simple and the kids really like getting their hands on something. If we can get the next generation involved in this and buying into it and understanding it, that's going to be invaluable for our future.”

Tampa Bay Watch launched its “Shells for Shorelines” program in 2022. This spring they plan to build reefs at MacDill Air Force Base and Abercrombie Park in St. Petersburg. “We are constantly training new volunteers,” says Richard Radigan, oyster shell program manager for the nonprofit. “The dedication of our volunteers is inspirational. They happily donate their time and vehicles two to three times a week without fail to transport shells that have been in the hot Florida sun for days.”

“When community members are involved, they realize that actions have impact,” says Serra Herndon, Habitat Restoration Director for Tampa Bay Watch. “And when they go home and they tell their neighbor or friends or whomever and the positive story reverberates.”

OysterCorps members planting marsh grasses (Photo: Franklin’s Promise Coalition)
OysterCorps members planting marsh grasses (Photo: Franklin’s Promise Coalition)

Training the Next Generation of Coastal Conservationists

In Florida, the Pensacola and Perdido Bays Estuary Program will use funds provided through the Restore America’s Estuaries award to renew the communities’ historic ties to Pensacola, Escambia, and Blackwater Bays. The funds will support an oyster shell recycling program driven by people ages 18 to 25. The Estuary Program has partnered with OysterCorps, a workforce development program managed by NOAA partner Franklin’s Promise Coalition. They will collect shells from participating restaurants and use them to create new oyster habitat in the Pensacola Bay area.

"The Florida Panhandle has seen a long-term decline in oyster harvesting, including the near total collapse of wild harvesting in the Pensacola Bay area,” says Matt Posner, Executive Director at Pensacola and  Perdido Bays Estuary Program. “Oyster decline has been exacerbated by severe weather events and the Deepwater Horizon oil spill, impacting the livelihoods of multi-generational harvesters. OysterCorps gives young people the chance to develop restoration and leadership skills to connect to a once thriving ecosystem, ensuring they are part of the solution."

“It’s hard work and a pretty smelly job, but I enjoyed directly contributing to my community and my environment,” says Pensacola native Reggie Miller, who was a member of OysterCorps for four years. “Getting out and talking to people in the community really helped me to come out of my shell. It led me down the path I’m on now as a professional land surveyor.”

“Doing this work helped me realize I want a career in shoreline restoration,” says Anthony Grabin, another OysterCorps member who is now serving as the field coordinator for the new OysterCorps crew. “Teaching the new members workmanship is truly a pleasure,” says Grabin. “This program exposes you to a lot of different trades and opens a lot of doors. I think that shoreline restoration is a crucial thing that a lot of people aren't aware of, but hopefully we can change that.”

The Pensacola and Perdido Bays Estuary Program is also administering a separate $10.9 million NOAA award to design a 1,482-acre bay-scale oyster restoration initiative. The goal is to construct up to 247 acres in the next 4 years. The Estuary Program will work with OysterCorps in the same NOAA award to implement a Living Shoreline Cost Share Program across Pensacola and Perdido Bays. This will ensure shell collected through the oyster shell recycling program directly supports coastal restoration projects.

Unloading oyster shells collected from restaurants to cure in the sun. (Photo: Galveston Bay Foundation)
Unloading oyster shells collected from restaurants to cure in the sun. (Photo: Galveston Bay Foundation)

What’s Next

Restore America’s Estuaries aims to strengthen and expand oyster recycling efforts in the Gulf by encouraging current partners to share best practices and trouble-shoot shared challenges. “We definitely help each other out as we all have the same issues and struggles,” says Shannon Batte, Habitat Restoration Coordinator for Galveston Bay Foundation. “It’s good to have that network to where we can say, ‘hey, this isn't working for us, what do you all do?’ and then we can bounce ideas off of each other.” 

They also plan to establish new oyster recycling programs in the region over the next 3 years.

In the meantime, current project partners are always looking to recruit new volunteers. If schlepping bags of shells sounds like too much work, most of the programs also run seafood tastings and food festivals to raise funds. 

“There's so much doom and gloom in this field, and the projections are not looking good,” says Biros. “But, if we can get members of the public out to build an oyster reef, it’s an act of defiance against the odds. You have to say, ‘I am going to do this today because this is my community and I want to be a part of a solution for a better future.’”