Tuesday, October 7, 2014

Recycled Oyster Shell- An Underappreciated Commodity

This article on the use of recycled oyster shell appeared in the Fredericksburg Virginia Free-lance Star. it does a nice job talking aobut the use of oyster shell in oyster restoration programs. 

The shell recylcing program at Mass Oyster is gaining momentum as we recently collected shell generated from the Battery Wharf Oyster Festival at the Fairmont Battery Wharf and the mandarin oriental in addition to our stalwart participants at the Langham Boston. 

This Summer we worked with three scout troops (one girl, one boy, and one cub) to place shell in three locations in Winthrop. Sadly despite the presence of oysters nearby we did not see much of a set upon them. The size of the oyster set can vary considerably. This year Wellfleet had a terrific set- last year a bit less so. The direction of the prevailing winds and temperatures during key times can make a difference.  We will continue to monitor the shell as it is there waiting for a spat to call it home. 

Oyster shells a hot commodity in Virginia

oysters crop
REEDVILLE—For Richard Harding Jr., the cascading clatter of oyster shells and the “beep, beep, beep” of a tractor moving between a 20-foot pile of shells is the sound of success.
Up until three years ago, Harding, who manages Purcell’s Seafood, a relatively small oyster house on the Little Wicomico River in Reedville, was selling his shells to the state for reef restoration projects.
Now, he uses it all in-house. The pile is his personal Fort Knox, an insurance policy to cover a year when harvests might dip.
“Years ago, oysters weren’t growing and living that well,” he said. “Now I’m more optimistic about the oyster industry than I ever have been.”
That optimism goes all the way to Richmond. In July, Gov. Terry McAuliffe declared Virginia “the oyster capital of the East Coast.” He said the industry is now worth about $58 million to the state economy.
But the phenomenal growth of oyster farming over the last decade has an upshot: As the supply of shells declines, the price keeps going up.
The shells, once so abundant they were used for roads and foundations, are now a limited resource.
“Shells are the currency for oyster success,” said Jim Wesson, who heads the state’s oyster conservation and replenishment efforts. “In nature, we’re never making back enough oysters with big shells because we have oyster diseases in the bay.”
It used to cost 75 cents for a bushel of shells. Now a bushel can sell for as much as $6.
“It’s really gone up in the past several years as the kind of market shortage of shell has occurred,” said Susan Conner, who heads the U.S. Army Corps of Engineers’ oyster restoration program.
In fact, oyster shells have become so valuable that Virginia uses them as matching “funds” to qualify for federal funding for oyster reef restoration projects with the Corps of Engineers’ Norfolk District.
States and the federal government are supposed to split costs 75–25. So if a project costs $2 million, Virginia has to come up with $500,000. But the state, burdened by a heavy budget deficit, doesn’t have the funds for its share.
So the corps agreed to accept dredged fossilized oyster shells from the James River in lieu of cash.
“They have been able to provide that kind of funding through their shell value,” said Conner. “We use a market value of a bushel of shell to evaluate how much to give them for the shell they dredge up.”
Conner said the Corps is studying additional fossil deposits in Virginia that might be used in the future.
No story about Chesapeake Bay oysters can be told without explaining that during the last century the population has dwindled—victims of disease, loss of habitat, pollution and over-harvesting.
Over the last five years, science and aquaculture have worked together to bring the industry back, some by way of a lab-grown, disease-resistant, sterile oyster called the triploid. The state provided the incentive by leasing public oyster grounds for a small fee.
Every year, more watermen are ditching their crab pots and taking up oystering either on public grounds or as oyster farmers.
Today, there are 764 licensed aquaculture harvesters leasing nearly 114,000 acres (more than twice the size of Washington, D.C.) at $1.50 an acre per year. That price has remained the same since 1960, according to the Virginia Marine Resources Commission. Before that, it was $1 per year.
To understand why shells have become such an important commodity, you have to understand the needs of a baby oyster.
Once waters have warmed, oysters begin releasing sperm and egg. Fertilized eggs drift in the water eating phytoplankton and developing a foot-like appendage.
Next they move to the bottom of a river, where they search for a hard surface, preferably oyster shell, to “strike” by attaching their feet to it with a kind of oyster glue. From this point, they grow their shell and become what’s called spat.
Oysters grow about 1 inch in a year and are considered market size at about 3 inches.
Farmers grow either native Virginia oysters or the triploid using two methods. This is where the shells come in.
Spat-on-shell is a method where larvae are introduced to tanks filled with empty oyster shells onto which they attach and grow. The shells will be planted in a river bottom or grown in cages, racks or floats, and eventually harvested for shucking.
The second method is more specialized for the half-shell market. It uses crushed oyster shell to obtain the single-oysters prized by restaurants.
Purcell’s grows native Virginia oysters using both methods. On an average day, Harding harvests 30 to 40 bushels of oysters he’s planted on grounds he leases from the state.
Purcell’s shucks its own oysters in addition to those it buys from local watermen. Some of the shells will go into the river, put down as a hard surface onto which spat-on-shell oysters are “planted.”
Others are planted with a cooperative of aquaculturists in the nearby Great Wicomico River, so wild oyster larvae can strike.
Harding will transplant the wild baby oysters to his leased oyster grounds and eventually harvest them for market.
When Harding was selling his shells to the state, they went for about $1.25 for a bushel. Now, he says he could sell them for about $3.
He has about 10,000 bushels piled up.
“They’re worth more to me than selling them to someone else,” he said.
Neighboring oyster houses said they are being offered up to $6 per bushel by North Carolina and Maryland.
There is another factor driving the need for shells. In 2009, President Obama signed an executive order directing the federal government to protect and restore the Chesapeake Bay and its tributaries. Part of that initiative is to restore oyster reefs in 10 tributaries by 2025.
Oyster shell is key to reef restoration because oyster larvae prefer it more than any other surface. It’s what the corps, the National Oceanic and Atmospheric Administration and environmentalists like the Chesapeake Bay Foundation try to use.
“Unfortunately, there aren’t enough shells for restoration in Maryland and Virginia,” said Jackie Shannon, CBF’s oyster restoration manager for Virginia.
CBF has established a shell recycling program with restaurants, localities and other large oyster consumers in Virginia and Maryland. The foundation also uses clam and mussel shells for their projects.
Still, that’s not enough.
So the states, the corps and groups such as the CBF have begun to innovate with oyster shell surrogates.
CBF has had great success with a concrete reef ball, an igloo-like structure that stands 2 feet tall and 2 feet at the base and is seeded with oyster larvae in a large tank. Once the larvae become spat, the balls are planted around an existing reef.
Depending on the reef size, CBF will plant anywhere from 100 to 300 balls. Since 2010, CBF has planted more than 900 reef balls in the Piankatank and Lafayette rivers.
Across the bay, Maryland has deployed more than 2,500 reef balls since they began planting them in 2008; some incorporate concrete from Baltimore’s demolished Memorial Stadium.
The state also is spending nearly $9 million to haul more than 112,000 tons of fossilized oyster shell from Florida for a large restoration project that will also incorporate granite.
“Luckily the state can use our fossil shells and we don’t have to get into the bidding wars with other people trying to get shells,” said Wesson.
He said the state also buys from recyclers who save concrete from demolition jobs.
This year Virginia received $500,000 from The Nature Conservancy for a project in the Piankatank. The money will be used for another partnership with the Corps and NOAA to experiment with using clean ground concrete for a reef in the river.
Wesson said the method has proved successful in rebuilding reefs in the Gulf of Mexico after Katrina and the BP oil spill decimated oysters there. The Gulf, still the No. 1 oyster producer in the U.S., is also experiencing a shell shortage.

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