Oyster Shell Recycling Program Impacted By Pandemic

BERLIN — Yet another unintended side-effect of the ongoing pandemic is a dire shortage of oyster shells critical to the ongoing recovery of the iconic shellfish in Maryland.

Typically, November is a robust time for the consumption of oysters on the Eastern Shore and across the state, from crowded raw bars to oyster festivals all over the region. However, as the COVID pandemic continues, many restaurants are closed or are operating at limited capacity, and fall festivals are virtually non-existent due to limitations on gathering sizes.

The Oyster Recovery Partnership (ORP) works with a coalition of hundreds of restaurants and other oyster consumers around Maryland and throughout the mid-Atlantic region to collect and recycle oyster shells critical to the recovery of the species in the Chesapeake and its tributaries. The ORP is the largest oyster shell-recycling operation in the nation.

However, because of a decline in oyster sales and restaurants and raw bars, and a dearth of oyster and seafood festivals, the ORP has lost its major source for recycled oyster shells.

“Oyster shell is the best material for getting young oysters into the Chesapeake Bay, making it the single most important resource to the oyster restoration process,” said ORP Shell Recycling Operations Manager Tommy Price. “Right now, we’re experiencing a major shell shortage and we’re calling on the public to help us close that gap.”

ORP’s Shell Recycling Alliance collects oyster shells free of charge from hundreds of businesses throughout the region and has seen its collection rates increase steadily over the years. However, for a variety of reasons including COVID, the organization has collected about half of what was projected this year. For example, roughly 14,000 bushels were collected from January to November 2020, compared to 31,000 bushels collected over the same period in 2019.

The drop-off in shell collection is also indicative of declining oyster sales. With limited places to sell their product, harvesters have thousands of market-size oysters at the ready. Recognizing the need for an outlet for harvested oysters, the ORP for months has been encouraging residents to enjoy the bay’s bounty at home, including recipes, virtual shucking workshops and other ways consumers can continue to support their local seafood and restaurant industry.
“We encourage oyster lovers to come together to support the Chesapeake seafood industry during a time when they need it the most,” said Price. “Buy local seafood from markets and restaurants, enjoy oysters at home and recycle your shells. It’s a win-win-win.”

Natural oyster shell is vital to a healthy oyster population because it is the preferred material onto which oyster larvae attach themselves and grow. Every half-shell can host up to 10 spat, or baby oysters. Once collected, the shells are aged outside for a year, washed and set with spat by the University of Maryland Center for Environmental Science Horn Point Laboratory Oyster Hatchery in Cambridge.

ORP works with its restoration partners through the spring and summer to deploy spat-covered shells onto local oyster reefs, making them larger, denser and taller with the ultimate goal of encouraging continued spawning. Over the past two decades, the ORP has planted roughly 8.5 billion oysters on 2,500 underwater acres, while recycling 225,0000 bushels of shells. The ORP maintains 70 oyster shell recycling drop-off stations in Maryland including 11 in Wicomico County.

About The Author: Shawn Soper

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Shawn Soper has been with The Dispatch since 2000. He began as a staff writer covering various local government beats and general stories. His current positions include managing editor and sports editor. Growing up in Baltimore before moving to Ocean City full time three decades ago, Soper graduated from Loch Raven High School in 1981 and from Towson University in 1985 with degrees in mass communications with a journalism concentration and history.