What To Do With All Those Shells

What To Do With All Those Shells? Ask Spey

Each year the pearling industry – and the mollusk trade at large – produces millions of oyster shells as byproducts of sustainable farming practices. But the pearling industry, ever thoughtful of the environment and marine ecosystems, lets none go to waste.

Natural oyster shell is an excellent medium on which to raise the next generation of oysters and regenerate oyster reefs. Spat, the proper term for baby oysters, begin their lives as free floaters; coasting about to the whim of the waves. As they grow, spat settle to the bottom and anchor to solid surfaces. Often, this small patch of rocky seabed becomes their home for life. Perhaps you’ve seen clumps of oysters clinging to a concrete piling of an ocean pier, a steadfast colony of mollusks uninhibitedly filtering that which crosses their briny paths. Oysters need this constancy to survive.

Much to the vexation of environmentalists, natural oyster beds are diminishing in response to exploitation, pollution and human interference. As fewer oysters reach maturity, fewer shells are discarded to support future generations. Queue the ever-vigilant eye of the mollusk trade. Organizations like the Oyster Recovery Project, working in threatened environments like the Chesapeake Bay and Hudson River, collect the unwanted oyster shells and mussel shells from restaurants to rebuild oyster reefs. Each half-shell collected may support the juvenile growth period of up to 10 baby oysters.

Man-made mounds of oyster shells in the brackish water of bays and river mouths, simulating the natural phenomenon in pristine environments, quickly become hosts to a variety of marine organisms like algae, minnows, worms and crabs. These in turn attract a diversity of larger fish, with the resulting ecosystem fueling populations of happy, healthy oysters. Oysters give back by purifying the water, thereby encouraging more abundant biodiversity.

But there’s more! These large deposits of oyster shells help stabilize shorelines and mitigate some of the impacts of both runoff and sea level rise. Shells may also act as a carbon bank, improving the ocean’s capacity to absorb excess carbon dioxide from the atmosphere. Not too shabby for something many diners might consider waste. And for those that love pearls (like we at Spey), oyster shells are recycled into the nuclei of cultured pearls – forming the core of nature’s most lustrous gem. Discarded shells are first sliced, then cubed, then tumbled, and then polished to form perfectly round spheres around which an oyster deposits layer-after-layer of nacre.

The preservation of natural oyster beds is critical for environmental stability. Not only is the food industry taking notice, but so too is the pearling industry. Each are investing time and resources to ensure that oysters are sustainably harvested and that byproducts like shells are reinvested back into the ecosystem. The continual reusing and recycling of expended oyster shells ensures a brighter future for both industry and earth.