The Oyster Recovery Partnership has been picking up oyster shells from restaurants, bars and even landfills around Maryland for 10 years, part of a project aimed at restoring the bivalves to the Chesapeake Bay and cleaning the water as well.
But the supply of shells has dropped dramatically since the pandemic hit, putting a crimp in those efforts.
Matt Miller, who works for the partnership, or ORP, was hauling barrels full of oyster shells from Annapolis restaurants to his truck parked near the City Dock one recent morning.
He had three blue, 32-gallon barrels after one trip, one not quite full and the others less than half full.
They came from four different restaurants, he said. If he emptied one of the less than full barrels into another, he’s “probably be looking at, like 64 gallons,” he said. “And you’d probably get over 100 just from O’Brien’s alone on a typical day,” he added, referring to a popular Main Street bar.
But that was before the pandemic that has reduced many bars and restaurants to carry out operations and driven oyster sales down.
George Betz, the executive chef at Boatyard Bar and Grill, the largest supplier of oyster shells in Annapolis, says they “don’t sell oysters for carry-out.”
“As you can imagine, it’s pretty tough,” he explained. “It’s cumbersome. You can sell them whole, but it’s not a big call for that.”
He says his overall business—as well as oyster sales—has been down by about 40 percent because of the pandemic.
And that reflects the drop-off through the entire recycling program, says Tommy Price, who manages it for ORP.
“This is peak oyster season, between Thanksgiving and winter holiday season,” he said. “Usually, it’s going great guns and right now we’re significantly less than half our normal pick up.”
He says some restaurants are down to a quarter of what they usually supply.
Others are still going strong, he added, “but our truck is a lot lighter today, in the past couple weeks, and really since March has declined significantly.”
ORP drivers haul the shells to a lot in Grasonville, just the other side of the Kent Narrows, clean them and take them to the University of Maryland’s Horn Point Hatchery near Cambridge where scientists attach baby oysters, larvae, to the shells because that’s where they grow best.
Then, ORP crews haul the shells and the larvae to man-made oyster reefs in three Choptank River tributaries, Harris Creek, the Little Choptank and the Tred Avon River, to grow and do what oysters do best, filter the water and provide habitat for other Chesapeake creatures.
Stephanie Reynolds Westby, the top oyster scientist at NOAA’s Chesapeake Bay Program, says oysters are an ecological keystone species. The water they clean allows sunlight to reach the bay bottom, which allows seagrasses to grow, which provides food for birds and more habitat and nurseries for crabs and fish.
“So, they’re very important,” she said. “There really is this connection between these oysters and all of these other creatures. It’s another habitat type. It’s like underwater grasses the functions that they provide.”
But there are no longer enough oysters in the bay to provide those functions on the scale that’s necessary. Reynolds Westby says the oyster population, bay wide, is estimated at one percent of historic levels because of overfishing and disease.
“When you lose 99% of your oysters, you lose 99% of everything that goes a long with it.”
And that’s where ORP’s shell recycling program comes in. Oysters won’t grow in Chesapeake Bay mud. They need hard surfaces, like other oyster shells. Tommy Price says they are what nature prefers.
“It’s what oysters want to stick to to grow for the rest of their lives,” he said. “It’s a calcium carbonate and oysters just naturally stick to that best out of any other substrate.”
Totaling more than 800 acres, the projects in the Choptank tributaries—Harris Creek, the Little Choptank and the Tred Avon River--are what Reynolds Westby calls thriving “world-wide examples” of large-scale oyster restoration projects. But still, it will take a lot more similar operations, and more recycled shells, to make a dent in improving the bay-wide oyster population.