The oyster recycling program Sink Your ShucksTM was founded by the Harte Research Institute in 2009 and is co-coordinated by Dr. Jennifer Pollack, HRI Chair for Coastal Conservation and Restoration and Gail Sutton, former Associate Director for Institutional Initiatives, Finance and Administration. The program was the first in Texas that reclaims oyster shells from local restaurants and returns them to our local waters providing both substrate to form new reefs and habitat for fish, crabs and other organisms.
Returning shells to our bays requires some coordination. Shells are picked up twice weekly from restaurants and transported to the Port of Corpus Christi where they are quarantined. The program has collected 1.75 million pounds of shell to date! The shell is then moved from the stockpile location to various sites. Over 25 acres of oyster reef habitat has been restored throughout the Mission-Aransas Estuary in Copano, Aransas, and St. Charles Bays. Each spring, volunteers participate in community shell-bagging events to create the building blocks of reefs in St. Charles Bay, adjacent to Goose Island State Park. Thanks to over 2,000 volunteers to date, over 320,000 pounds of shell have been placed in the bay to create new oyster reef habitat.
Oysters are an important ecological and economic resource. They create habitat for fish and shellfish, filter and clean bay waters, protect shorelines from erosion, and are a valued commercial fishery. Young oysters depend upon the hard shell substrate provided by reefs for attachment and growth.
Yet, although more than 2.6 million pounds of oysters were harvested from Texas bays in 2008 alone—the second largest commercial oyster harvest in the U.S.—no mechanism exists for shucked oyster shells to be returned to bay waters to maintain existing reefs and restore degraded habitats. Instead, after being harvested, shucked oysters, including large quantities created by restaurants, are typically thrown in the trash. This disposal of oyster shell in landfills disrupts the natural process of oyster reef growth and regeneration and deprives reefs of their most fundamental building blocks.
Thus, there is a critical need to develop an oyster shell recycling program to reclaim oyster shells from local restaurants and other sources of shell to use in oyster reef restoration, habitat enhancement and marine resource conservation projects. Successful reclamation of oyster shells and use of these shells in fisheries habitat restoration in Coastal Bend bays will provide new opportunities for marine resource conservation coast-wide in the state of Texas.
Oysters spawn from Spring through Fall, releasing sperm and eggs into bay waters. Young larval oysters have no shell. They swim freely for about 3 weeks and then seek a hard surface upon which to attach and begin building their shells.
Oysters prefer to settle on the shells of other oysters. However, as oysters are harvested, their associated shell habitat is removed.
Our oyster shell recycling program reclaims oyster shells, or “shucks”, from restaurants and seafood wholesalers so that they can be used in future oyster reef restoration projects. Without oyster shell recycling, this important coastal resource would be lost to the landfill, which disrupts the process of natural reef regeneration.
Oyster reefs provide habitat for a diverse group of animals including fish, shrimp, worms and crabs. Oysters are food for larger fish, rays and crabs that are capable of crushing their shells.
Oysters are big business – Texas is the 2nd largest oyster producer in the U.S. The oysters also provide “ecosystem services”: they improve water quality by filtering phytoplankton and excess nutrients, and the oyster reefs can form a protective breakwater that stabilizes the shoreline and protects against erosion.
Teacher resources about oysters and oyster conservation
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Videos about our process and general oyster conservation