"Wait. So what you’re saying is that instead of utilizing a free resource that provides clean water and delicious food, we’ve been throwing it away in vast quantities?”
This kind of conversation must happen daily at VCU’s Rice Rivers Center (RRC), where the Virginia Oyster Shell Recycling Program — currently supported by over 25 Richmond restaurants and businesses, plus more organizations statewide — provides a solution for two big Virginia issues: a decline in regional oyster population and the Chesapeake Bay’s water quality.
Small but mighty, a single oyster filters a staggering 50 to 60 gallons of water every day, making for a cleaner bay, but there’s a catch: Due to overharvesting and disease, only a small fraction — 1 to 2 percent — of the Eastern oysters that lived in the bay in the 1800s still thrive there.
Enter the RRC and the Chesapeake Bay Foundation, whose program volunteers collect discarded shells from restaurants, shops and events and introduce them back into the Virginia portion of the bay, promoting oyster reproduction and maintaining the ecosystem’s pH levels as the shells decompose.
“Every dozen oysters served has filtered nearly 330,000 gallons in their lifetime,” says program director Todd Janeski. “That’s equivalent to 330,000 gallons of filtered Chesapeake Bay water, if they were raised here. So every time a patron buys a dozen oysters, they are supporting not only the Virginia industry, they are sponsoring water quality improvement in the bay.” Richmond likes oysters — a lot — supplying 50,000 pounds of shells in 2014 alone.
Who’s participating? Acacia Mid-Town, Dutch & Co., Heritage, Lemaire, Pearl Raw Bar, Rappahannock, Saison, The Boathouse at Sunday Park, The Hard Shell, The Pig & Pearl, Pomegranate, The Savory Grain, Westwood Club, Yellow Umbrella Provisions and Little House Green Grocery, as well as several oyster companies. The latest addition? Virginia’s Executive Mansion.
“We are committed to demonstrating environmentally-sustainable practices at the Executive Mansion,” Virginia first lady Dorothy McAuliffe says, “Recycling oyster shells with the Virginia Oyster Shell Recycling Program is one of many easy steps to ensure we lead by example.”
What can you do to help? Bring your shells to Yellow Umbrella, Tuckahoe Seafood or Ellwood Thompson’s Local Market to recycle; direct your favorite restaurant to the program; volunteer; or at the very least, next time you’re out for oysters, make it a dozen.