The Chesapeake Bay was once a world center for oyster production, but those beloved bi-valves have fallen on hard times. Pollution took a toll, and baby oysters missed their favorite places to grow. Now, an army of volunteers has teamed up with about a hundred restaurants and grocery stores to boost the population of Virginia oysters.
It’s nearly time for dinner and the kitchen at Shagbark, a trendy seafood place west of Richmond, is in high gear, shucking oysters. Chef de Cuisine Aaron Cross says the place can sell 1,400 of them in a week.
“This part of the country loves its oysters," he said. "We’re starting to turn the corner on everybody’s superstition about only eating oysters in R months. You will definitely see a spike once those months roll around, but we’re getting folks on the summertime oyster wagon, and Virginia oysters are becoming well known all over the country, and we’re even starting to ship around the world.”
Virginia is also starting to collect the leftover shells. Cross shows me large buckets in the walk-in cooler marked Don’t Chuck that Shuck.
“We keep them refrigerated," he explains. "You don’t have to, but we don’t necessarily want the smell of oysters waiting. We get a pick-up twice a week, and just in preparation for warm weather, we just keep our oysters in here.”
They’re doing that because baby oysters grow best on oyster shells. Todd Janeski heads the Virginia Oyster Shell Recycling Program.
“Oysters are free swimming animals for their first few weeks of their life, and during that initial time period, they’re looking for a hard surface to attach to – oyster shells preferred, because the shell breaks down over time. It releases calcium over time, for an oyster to grow its new shell.”
So, working with a team of about 125 volunteers, the program picks up over 600,000 bushels of oyster shells each year from Harris Teeter stores, community drop off centers and restaurants around the state.
“We just hauled over 8.5 tons of shell to our curing facility at the Rice River Center in Charles City/County, where those shells have to age cure for another 8-10 months," Janeski says. "What we’re looking for in that curing period is all of the organic matter – unopened oysters, baked-on cheese, anything that may be attached to the oyster we want to see it decompose before it goes back into the environment and introduces any additional pathogens.”
Next month, the Rice Center will celebrate construction of a new oyster shell reef in the lower Rappahanock near Kilmarnock.
“Like a true coral reef, there’s habitat for crabs, small fish, forage fish.," Janeski explains. "It’s a great spot to go fishing for puppy drum and speckled trout and you find a lot of small striped bass in those areas, and then those oyster reefs also help break down wave action from coastal storms.”
Maryland has been recycling its oyster shells for 20 years, and at least eight other states are also keeping their shells out of landfills. Participants agree it’s a win for everyone involved. Restaurants boast about it on their menus, and customers are glad to know about this green practice.Volunteers are happy to help out in a very concrete way, and as more oysters grow, they filter more water, doing their part to clean up coastal pollution.