Jenny Corlett & Kelly Murphy are researchers at the Harvard University Graduate School of Design exploring the productive potential of the oyster waste stream in Boston.
Do you like oysters? If so, you’re not alone. 4.1 million pounds of oysters were harvested in Massachusetts alone last year. Oysters have always been part of New England’s foodscape, and oyster reefs were a crucial element of the underwater ecosystem that filtered nutrients from our estuaries and maintained our harbors rich natural resource areas.
Oysters not only clean our water, but also act as shoreline buffers that dissipate wave energy. What’s more, oyster reefs support critical fisheries by providing habitat for other marine life. Oyster reefs, however, are now one of the most severely impacted marine habitats on Earth: over 85% have been lost globally.
We hear a lot about oysters these days – from their ability to reinforce coastlines against increasingly powerful storms, to filter pollutants out of our water (the average adult oyster can filter 50 gallons of water per day), and about the foodie culture surrounding their consumption. There is, however, an important gap in our oyster conversation: what about the waste associated with their consumption?
What happens to oyster shells once they’ve been discarded?
Most people have never thought about what’s left over eating oysters. But did you know that:
- Over 40 restaurants in Boston serve oysters.
- Each restaurant generates around 20 pounds of oyster shells per day.
- Together, this totals over 300,000 pounds of oyster shells per year in Boston alone.
- Only 4 restaurants currently recycle their shells, meaning that of the vast majority of shells are currently landfilled.
Why? Because Boston doesn’t have anywhere better to put them. But within this broken cycle lies an opportunity for Boston to address two key problems: discarded shells and oyster reef decline. While there are numerous productive uses for discarded oyster shell, the best use by far is as a surface for juvenile oysters to attach to and grow on. The link between the two problems presents an exciting opportunity to propose a better system.
Imagine if all those discarded shells were used to help build new oyster reefs and a re-establish a healthy harbor ecosystem! By establishing a city-wide oyster gardening program we could close the gap in the oyster waste stream.
What is oyster gardening? The idea is simple: raise native oysters in cages attached to docks or existing infrastructure. Once the oysters reach 3 inches, they can be dropped into approved waters to construct and replenish oyster reefs.
Oyster gardening could simultaneously restore native oyster reefs, improve local water quality, and reconnect the people of Boston with their waterfront. There are a number of successful precedents for oyster gardening programs around the region. Oyster gardens are thriving in places like New York, Virginia, Tennessee, Delaware, and New Hampshire, to name a few.
The waters of the Boston Harbor are mostly closed to shell fishing due to the risk of oysters being harvested illegally in polluted waters. However, nursery areas for shellfish seeding projects are permitted if they are transplanted to approved waters. Over the last three years, the Massachusetts Oyster Project has proven that oysters can survive in Boston Harbor. In just a few years, oyster gardeners could use discarded restaurant shells to grow thousands of oysters in the Boston Harbor and re-stock endangered reefs in the region.
What can you do to help? Get involved in the oyster discussion directly: the next time you order oysters at a restaurant, ask whether they recycle their shells. Just by asking that simple question, you can put the thought into the minds of the chef, wait staff, and restaurant owners. Use your power as a consumer to help frame the discussion and generate support for oyster shell recycling and gardening.
If you’re interested in learning more about other efforts to re-establish oysters in the Boston Harbor, take a look at the Massachusetts Oyster Project and Green Harbors Project at UMass Boston.