Wednesday, April 16, 2014
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Philadelphia's Oyster House donating used shells to save Delaware Bay

The Oyster House´s specialty — before they are devoured and the shells are left to dispose of. (PHOTO: ERIC STABACH)
The Oyster House's specialty — before they are devoured and the shells are left to dispose of. (PHOTO: ERIC STABACH)

A Center City restaurant is putting weight behind the saying, “One man's trash is another man's treasure.”

The Oyster House restaurant on Sansom Street in Center City has teamed up with a New Jersey environmental nonprofit, the BaySave Foundation, to divert thousands of pounds of oyster shells from the garbage to the ecosystem.

"We live in the Delaware Bay estuary, we buy Delaware Bay oysters, we're selling them, then we're taking the byproduct - the shells, the waste, basically - and instead of it going to a landfill, we're putting it back into the bay to become reef for new oysters," Oyster House owner Sam Mink said. "For us, it's a win-win. It closes the loop and reduces our trash."

BaySave founder Tony Novak approached Mink last month with the proposal. Novak said for him, it seemed like a no-brainer: Oysters combat pollution in the bay by removing nitrates from the water and replenishing it with oxygen.

"The point is, a lowly little oyster turns out to be vitally important to the ecosystem," Novak said.

Through the years, climate change, over-harvesting and disease have spelled trouble for the shellfish.

"The population is down compared to historical numbers and it's increasingly vulnerable to the future climate changes that we're expecting," said ecologist Danielle Kreeger, who is a research associate professor at Drexel University's Department of Biodiversity, Earth and Environmental Science and the science director for the Partnership for the Delaware Estuary. "So we really do feel that to sustain the oysters in the Delaware Bay is going to require some continued assistance."

What does that have to do with the shells that patrons leave on the plate and most restaurants slide into the trash? Baby oysters prefer to grow by attaching themselves to old shells, so much so that the material itself has become a commodity. The state of Maryland last week paid $6.3 million to a Florida quarry to purchase over 110,000 tons of oyster shell to replenish a reef off the coast of Maryland.

"Oyster shell is an increasingly difficult commodity to get," Novak said. "Simply by collecting it, cleaning it, recycling it and having it available, I think that's the first statement BaySave can make. I can get some attention by me yelling screaming how important oysters are and that means nothing. But on the other hand, if Sam and I have 200 tons of oyster shell by next year, that's saying something."

Mink said the Oyster House, which used to throw out between 3,000 and 4,000 shells each day, now instead places them in bins Novak provided at no cost. "Our dumpster needs to be picked up every other day now," Mink said. "So we've cut back 50 percent, as far as the cost of trash. We're literally saving 50 percent off of our dumpster pickup."

Kreeger applauded the team's efforts.

"We've been trying to get a shell recycling program started for many years," she said. "There are some fundamental challenges to doing that, in terms of logistics and costs, but the need is incredible."

The work of recycling the shells is time- and labor-intensive - and, as Novak pointed out, not particularly pretty. "The mechanics of oyster shell restoration are not very glamorous," he said. "It means I'm picking up smelly shells in the back alleys of restaurants at ridiculous hours of the morning. Then, they have to be spread in areas where they can be cleaned. Then, they have to sit for a year before they can go back into the water."

Still, he hopes more eateries sign onto the program and, just as importantly, more environmentalists volunteer to participate in the BaySave Foundation's community-based oyster restoration efforts. "At this point, it's literally just me, one truck and one trailer," he said. "But you have to start somewhere."

He may soon find aid is on its way. Kreeger was excited to learn of the BaySave Foundation's efforts.

"A shell recycling program is something I would love to see going, and the Partnership for the Delaware Estuary would be willing to help," she said.

Alex Wigglesworth For Philly.com
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