Bringing Back the Oysters

Once upon a time, Delaware’s Inland Bays harbored an abundance of oysters, lost in recent decades to harvest, disease and pollution. However, there is encouraging evidence that oysters are trying to make a comeback in these waters.

“Oysters are establishing themselves on any hard surface they can find in all three inland bays, including on man-made riprap,” says E.J. Chalabala, Aquatic Restoration Coordinator at the Center for Inland Bays (CIB).

This discovery precipitated an effort to seek funding for Delaware’s first oyster shell recycling program because, according to Chalabala, “The best places for oysters to grow and thrive are on other oysters.”

He approached Delaware’s Department of Natural Resources and Environmental Control’s Universal Recycling Grant and Loan Program, which focuses on glass, cardboard and plastic, and was pleased to be awarded with a $21,000 grant.

The grant has been further leveraged by funding from Chesapeake Utilities and space for curing oyster shells provided by Delaware Seashore State Park. Set to launch in June, the new program will collect shucked oyster shells from participating restaurants for eventual restoration projects around the Inland Bays. It will be implemented in partnership with The Nature Conservancy, which brings lessons from similar efforts taking place at state chapters in Rhode Island and North Carolina.

“Oyster shells serve as a local, natural resource which can be used in a variety of ways while adding to the ecological diversity of the landscape,” says Brian Boutin, the Conservancy’s Director of Conservation Programs in Delaware. “Bringing them back to these waters will have numerous environmental and economic benefits for the state.”
Once collection from restaurants begins, it will take up to a year for oysters to cure in the sun. Then the CIB and the Conservancy will be ready to move ahead.

“One adult oyster can filter up to 50 gallons of water per day,” says Chalabala. “So imagine the impact of healthy oyster beds throughout Delaware’s waterways.”

There are many potential uses for recycled oyster shells:

  • Material for natural bulkheads, reefs and other structures meant to control erosion, buffer the coast from storms and attract diverse wildlife
  • Nursery for baby oysters and a potentially profitable aquaculture industry for the state
  • Incubator for oyster populations established to filter waters feeding the inland bays


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