Growing Oysters From Half-Shells
Galveston Bay eateries recycle used shells to help restore oyster reefs.
By Matthew Abernathy
In September 2008, Hurricane Ike barreled ashore on the east end of Galveston Island, leaving a wake of devastation all around Galveston Bay and far into East Texas. Although much of the devastation was visible, there was also extensive damage that remained unseen, below the surface of the waters of Galveston Bay. Debris and sediment littered the bay floor, smothering nearly 60 percent of Galveston Bay’s oyster reefs.
Before 2008, Galveston Bay accounted for 80 percent of all oysters harvested in Texas. Oyster reefs are essential for maintaining healthy estuaries. They help to clean bay waters — an individual adult oyster can filter up to 50 gallons of water a day. They also play important roles in the viability of commercial and recreational fisheries by providing habitat and food sources for important species.
In response to the loss of oyster reefs, the Galveston Bay Foundation (GBF) began to solicit the support of local bayside communities to conduct community-based projects such as oyster gardening and reef seeding. One of the limiting factors was a steady (and free) source of shell. In early 2011, local restaurant owner Tom Tollett presented the perfect solution. His restaurant, Tommy’s Restaurant and Oyster Bar in Clear Lake, specializes in oysters, and Tollett wanted to find a way to help restore the reefs in Galveston Bay by “recycling” the discarded shells generated from his restaurant.
Oyster shell recycling is done in other parts of the country but had not been tried around Galveston Bay. Starting in March 2011, employees began separating the discarded oyster shells from food scraps and placing them in special collection bins behind the restaurant. Several times a week, GBF picks up the shells and takes them to a remote property in Texas City, where they are left to bleach in the sun. This sun bleaching, or curing, removes organic material and bacteria from the shells, helping to prevent potential contamination once the shells are placed back into aquatic systems.
Once they have been cured for a minimum of six months, the shells can be used in various oyster reef restoration projects around Galveston Bay. These projects create, restore or enhance reefs around the bay, providing an ideal substrate on which oyster larvae can attach and serving as habitat for fish, shrimp, worms, clams and other marine organisms.
Thus far, recycled shell has been used in GBF’s oyster gardening program, and has been placed on small reefs near Kemah, San Leon, Offatts Bayou (Galveston Island) and Jamaica Beach.
GBF has started a project in West Galveston Bay to create roughly 335 linear feet of oyster reef that will connect adjacent, natural reefs. The project will result in 40 to 50 tons of recycled oyster shell being put back into Galveston Bay.
GBF’s oyster shell recycling efforts with Tommy’s Restaurant and Oyster Bar resulted in the collection of more than 70 tons of oyster shell by the end of 2012. This pilot project now serves as a model for a more substantial oyster shell recycling effort with other restaurants around Galveston Bay. GBF was awarded a federally funded grant from the Texas Coastal Management Program (administered by the Texas General Land Office) to expand the program to allow for the participation of five to nine seafood restaurants.
The response to the program expansion has been positive. In March 2013, GBF began collecting from two additional restaurants, Hooters in Seabrook and Topwater Grill in San Leon. GBF is also working to secure another location closer to the Clear Lake area to store and cure the additional shells.