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A solution to oyster shell shortage?

It’s an old Chesapeake tradition, paving driveways, decorating gardens and the bases of rural mailboxes with oyster shells. But it may give way to a different purpose; helping to restore the Chesapeake’s decimated oyster population. Here’s why.

Oyster shells are just the thing an oyster farmer needs to spread across three or four acres of leased bottom in a Chesapeake tributary to form a bed for baby oysters to attach themselves and grow. But shells are hard to come by (see: tradition and decimated population), and expensive; $3 to $4 a bushel. And that’s where homeowners like Jeff and Lisa Duffy come in.

They recently moved from Richmond into a retirement home in Virginia's Northern Neck. The house, built in 2010, had a French drain around the foundation that contained about 300 bushels of oyster shell.

Jeff Duffy says they liked the oyster shells around the house at first, “but after about a month or two we decided there's probably a better use for these oysters and we wanted to do something for the local people.”

So, he and Lisa made some calls and, last week, more than a dozen volunteers from the Chesapeake Bay Foundation and the Tidewater Oyster Gardener's Association, known as TOGA, descended on the property to get the shells.

Madison Boyd, TOGA's project coordinator, teaches a group of the Northern Neck's youngest future oyster farmers and he said the shells will be helpful.

“We've got four acres of ground we're leasing and we're building an oyster reef down there, it's an educational reef,” he said, “We work with the Boys and Girls Clubs with kids, bring them down, teach them how to grow oysters, go over oyster aquaculture with them once a month.

The 83-year-old Boyd was once a waterman who worked menhaden boats and fished for crabs and oysters. The rest of the volunteers were a formidable group. There were retirees, master oyster gardeners, some local folks and some who drove from Virginia Beach and Richmond. One was six-months pregnant.

The Chesapeake Bay Foundation’s oyster restoration manager, Jackie Shannon,  said the Duffy’s donation may be a first.

“Most of the time, we get calls from people who want to use the shell for their driveway,” she said. “They see we have a shell recycling program and think they may be able to use the shell for landscaping. We call that one of those teachable moments and let them know that there is a higher purpose we use the shells for and usually after that conversation we can talk them out of using the shells.”

By late afternoon the volunteers had raked, shoveled and hauled away several thousand pounds of shells, something like 176 bushels. And they planned to come for rest, after the hot soaks and Motrin.

The Duffys say they’ll replace the shell with stone and native plants.

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