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Don’t Throw Those Shells Away

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Photos by Jason Wallis and Hayley Phillips
Photo by Jayson Wallis + Hayley Phillips

Here in South Carolina, wintertime teams with backyard and seaside oyster roasts. We’ve all mastered the art of wielding an oyster knife and shucking with quick precision, in between swigs of our beverage of choice. But what to do with all those discarded shells? Sure, they work great crushed into tabby walls or driveways or garden paths, but here’s the thing: the waterways need them back.

Natural oyster beds up and down the East Coast have taken a hit from pollution and overharvesting, but many Southern states are taking the initiative to regrow oyster habitat, which takes shells. Lots of shells. Virginia recently dug up some subterranean oyster beds millions of years old just to harvest the shells.

Let’s call it oyster repatriation. Each May, oysters spawn. Their larvae, or “spat,” float around in waterways looking for something to glom onto. That something, ideally, is another oyster shell. Once they find a suitable campground, they attach for life, growing their shells of calcium carbonate. Then they get to work filtering the water (adult oysters filter about two gallons per hour). The more oysters, the cleaner the water. It’s a win/win.

But wait: don’t read this and start throwing your shells right back into the water. Shells can contain bacteria that would then infect a future oyster. Here’s what to do:

  1. Locate an Oyster Recycling Center: South Carolina has many coastal centers that properly quarantine the shells for six months before introducing them back into waterways. A complete list is here: http://saltwaterfishing.sc.gov/oyster.html If you live elsewhere, just Google your state plus oyster recycling.
  2. Separate shells from trash: Come on, just keep your trash out of it. You don’t want that polluting the waterways, do you? Once you’ve dumped your shells at the recycling centers, take your empty bags or containers home. Shells only, please.
  3. Don’t throw shells in the waterways: At the recent Cook It Raw oyster roast, we saw some well-intentioned folks throwing their oyster shells straight into the creek. Bad idea. Those shells need to be quarantined, dried, and rid of bacteria before being reintroduced. Let the experts take care of it for you.