Half shells for habitat
Every week or so, a volunteer pulls up to Tellers: An American Chophouse in Islip, to collect five-gallon Half Shells for Habitat recycling buckets brimming with waste oyster shells. Another drives to Catch in Patchogue for a similar stop. H2O Seafood & Sushi in East Islip and Prime in Huntington are on the oyster shell collection list, too.
Seatuck Environmental Association in Islip has launched Half Shells for Habitat, a vigorous and relatively simple oyster shell recovery program that partners with local restaurants and the Town of Brookhaven. After the restaurants close, volunteers haul the collected waste shells in a Seatuck trailer to a Brookhaven Town facility in Manorville for storage.
These hard, protective outer cases will eventually provide a significant environmental repurposing. And Seatuck is looking for more volunteers in hopes that their restaurant partners increase.
“Gov. Cuomo announced an effort in oyster recovery and there are four or five towns that benefitted from this funding, including Islip,” said Seatuck Environmental Association executive director Enrico Nardone. “But a lot is geared to aquaculture-serving restaurants. So a lot of the shells patrons leave on their plates wind up in waste streams.”
So Seatuck latched onto an effort to redirect the waste stream. “It’s not an idea we invented, but it’s in 22 states,” Nardone said. “And Brookhaven supervisor Ed Romaine jumped in right away when we met with him.”
“It started in the Chesapeake,” added John Turner, Seatuck’s conservation policy advocate, of the Chesapeake Recovery Partnership, a 501(c)(3).
“After customers are done with their plates, restaurant staff separate the shells and put them in a bucket,” Nardone explained. “A Seatuck volunteer drives them out to our partner site in Manorville, a storage site. The Department of Environmental Conservation requires the shells sit in the sun, a purification process, before they go back in the water.”
The buckets are cleaned after every pickup.
Some are transported to Stony Brook School of Marine and Atmospheric Sciences at their Southampton facility and to Cornell Cooperative Extension in Riverhead.
The shells are then utilized as a home base for spat to latch onto.
“We’re collecting the shells for the Shinnecock Bay Restoration Program,” confirmed Dr. Brad Peterson, SOMAS associate professor of marine science and project investigator of Shinnecock Bay Restoration Program.
“That project started six years ago and the whole point is to remove nitrogen from the water by using hard clams and oysters,” Peterson said. “ShiRP was the first program to get DEC approval for oyster restoration on Long Island.”
The spat is put in tanks with the restaurant oyster shells for several weeks. Eventually, the animals are placed in a Shinnecock Bay reef, and are attached to the oyster shells for the rest of their lives.
“One of the limiting things for oyster restoration is having material for these oyster babies to settle on. We don’t have a lot of natural oyster shells,” Peterson added. “We used to use surf clam shells. A lot now will come from aquaculture. Having the restaurants provide the oyster shells and having the space to cure them from the town has been a blessing.”
Peterson said ShiRP has one reef in Shinnecock Bay they are stocking; they have a permit for four reefs.
“Cornell and Stony Brook said they’d take as many oyster shells as they can get,” Nardone said.
Nardone said he’s hoping other restaurants will jump on the initiative. “We’re on the verge of participating with Snapper Inn,” he said.
Oyster shells have a domino effect. They provide a natural habitat for small fish and crabs, and as they dissolve the calcium that leaches out helps reduce coastal acidification. “It’s also about returning basic materials back to the water, including the pH scale,” Nardone said. “The bay and ocean need calcium carbonate to reduce ocean acidity. This is the next big issue, the acidification of oceans.”
Turner added the oyster shells could also be gathered in a net as a living shoreline structure. “They’ll be offshore to break wave action in Brookhaven Town. It’s a living community. The DEC, to its credit, is moving towards this living shoreline program.”
Brookhaven town officials said the Half Shells for Habitat initiative is a shell recycling program Brookhaven has been involved with since the beginning of summer.
The shells are stored in the open air at the Manorville recycling plant and the DEC requires they be stored in the sun for at least six months. Brookhaven ages them for a year. Brookhaven Town grows two million oysters and a million clams every year at their Cedar Beach hatchery complex in Mount Sinai.
“We think there’s a better shot for oyster survival when they are connected to an oyster reef,” said Romaine. “The Moriches Bay Project is also looking at building oyster reefs as well as Seatuck. Should the Moriches Bay Project be approved by the DEC, we’ll be planting them in Harts Cove. The live oysters consume algae by filtering seawater; they grow and are far more protected and effective than just dumping them on the bay bottom because they are attached to the oyster reef. It shows we’re not only interested in recycling, we’re definitely concerned about water quality.”
Restaurants or volunteers who would like to aid this program can call the Seatuck Environmental Association at 631-581-6908.
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