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University Hosts Oyster Shell Recycling Event to Restore Reef

March 30, 2012


CORPUS CHRISTI, Texas – Groups of students and community members kicked off an oyster reef restoration project with success. Saturday, March 10, volunteers bagged up reclaimed oyster shell and carried those bags to the water to build an oyster reef.

It’s an innovative project to recycle oyster shells back into the Gulf of Mexico waters and create a habitat where young oysters can attach and grow, ensuring an abundance of the mollusks for future commercial harvests.

Larval oysters are tiny, free-swimming plankton that depend upon the hard shells of previous generations for attachment and growth. In 2009, Dr. Jennifer Beseres Pollack, assistant professor in the Department of Life Sciences, developed the first oyster shell recycling program for the Texas Coastal Bend. Working with Water Street Restaurant and Niko’s Steakhouse, two local establishments that previously discarded tons of shucked oyster shells in area landfills, the program has already reclaimed more than 90,000 pounds of oyster shells and returned them to bay waters to maintain existing reefs and restore degraded habitats. 

 “Although more than 2.6 million pounds of oysters were harvested from Texas bays in 2008, no statewide mechanism exists for shucked shells to be returned to bay waters,” points out Pollack, who established the program in collaboration with the Harte Research Institute (HRI) and Port of Corpus Christi. “Instead, large quantities are simply 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.”  

Each week since the program began, University students have transported bins of oyster shells from the restaurants to a stockpile location at the Port, where they are dried in the sun and later reintroduced into the ecosystem. During the past year, recycled shells have been used to restore a 3.8 acre reef in Copano Bay, and plans are in development to build an educational oyster reef near Goose Island State Park that will be easily accessible to Corpus Christi Independent School District students for use in their aquatic science curriculum.

“Oyster reefs are one of the most threatened marine habitats on the planet,” says Pollack. “In addition to creating fish habitat, they filter and clean bay waters, and protect shorelines from erosion. There is a critical need to expand this oyster shell recycling program to provide new opportunities for marine resource conservation all along the Texas coast.” 

As part of her master’s research, HRI Assistant Director Gail Sutton conducted an economic analysis to quantify the benefits of the oyster shell recycling initiative. This information will be shared with marine conservation groups and with other potential restaurant partners to encourage expansion of shell recycling efforts. 

“Oysters are an important ecological and economic resource and an important and valued component of the commercial fishing industry,” says Sutton. “We’ll take what we learn from this project and share it with key stakeholders to encourage them to take advantage of recycling.”

Corpus Christi businessman Brad Lomax, owner of Water Street Restaurant, has worked closely with the University on several previous projects and, in 2008, was named an Honorary Alumnus of the Island University. He is already convinced that the program is beneficial to the environment, both in the water and onshore.

“I am excited about this project,” says Lomax. “We will easily recycle 60 to 70 tons annually, or about the equivalent of 20 Shamu-sized killer whales. Not only do the young oysters win, but the landfills do as well.”

Get Involved: http://www.oysterrecycling.org/

About Dr. Pollack: http://www.tamucc.edu/profiles/apr11/profile_pollack.html

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