Group collects shells in effort to save the Chesapeake Bay

By Lois Szymanski, Contact Report
Jul 15, 2015
A small group of conservationists in Carroll County has started a movement that they hope will make a big difference in the recovery of the Chesapeake Bay.  According to Rick Elyar, president of the Westminster-based Central Region chapter of the Coastal Conservation Association of Maryland, recycling oyster shells has become a focus for the chapter.  “Our chapter meets once a month as a fishing club,” Elyar said. “We’ve always said we wanted to do a real project with a purpose.”  Elyar said it all started in January, when Bill Goldsborough from the Chesapeake Bay Foundation came to a chapter meeting to discuss the decline in Chesapeake Bay oysters. He shared a video that showed two fish tanks filled with dirty bay water. One tank had oysters in it and one did not. The time-lapse video showed how the water cleared up within a few hours in the tank with oysters while the tank without oysters did not.

“We learned few things at that meeting,” Elyar said. “A single oyster is capable of filtering 50 gallons of water a day. At one time the oyster population could filter the entire bay in just a few days. Now it takes more than a year because oysters are at 1 percent of their historic high. We were just in awe at what the bay used to be.”

According to its website, ORP was commissioned more than 20 years ago as a cooperative coalition of partners that contribute to a large-scale restoration program to transplant oysters back into the Chesapeake Bay. Since its inception, more than 5.2 billion oysters have been planted on 1,600 acres of oyster reefs.

Goldsboro’s talk hit a nerve with the club and especially with two high school students who were attending the meeting. Summer Miles and Brett Hackett pushed the club to get involved.

Miles, a junior at Westminster High School, said she started going to CCA meetings and helping out as a way to get service hours. The chapter helps with fishing derbies and other events.

“When the expert came in to talk about the oyster reefs and showed the video about how they were creating these reefs I started getting more interested in the issues,” Miles said. “I thought we should help.”

Hackett said he agreed and so did the rest of the club.

“We all wanted to do something about this,” the North Carroll senior said. “I go out fishing almost every weekend from March to December, mostly in the Chesapeake Bay for rockfish and also freshwater fishing on occasion. I thought it would be really good if we got onboard and did the shell collecting locally.”

Elyar said the club agreed.

“Oysters are not just a food source,” he said. “Those reefs provide habitat for marine life. They filter the water, and stripping that resource out is dangerous to the bay.”

Hackett spoke of another reason oysters reefs are important.

“Some of my best fishing spots have a lot of oysters,” he said. “Those oysters attract worms and smaller bait fish. Then that attracts the larger species of fish. Black sea bass were recently found on one of the planted reefs and they haven’t been seen in a long time.”

Elyar said their CCA chapter partnered with the Oyster Recovery Partnership and began collecting shells this past spring for a program they called the Living Reef Action Campaign.

“ORP has an agreement with several municipalities to store the shells as well as the [University of Maryland’s] Horn Point Laboratory to manage the shells,” Elyar said. “They are stored at various locations. During this time the muscle deteriorates from the shells and they turn white. After they have deteriorated, our volunteers bag them up into mesh bags that go to the Horn Point Laboratory. There, they are submerged in water tanks where the spat [larvae] are injected into the water. The spat settles and then attaches to the shell.”

Once the larvae attach to the recycled shells, Elyar said they will be taken to an approved site in the bay. Every one shell will generate 10 new oysters. Up to 10 new baby oysters will grow in their own new shell using the old shell as a base to stick to.

In early spring, members of the chapter began visiting local restaurants that serve oysters to ask them to save their shells. Elyar said Lowe’s of Westminster donated sealed cans for each restaurant to store the collected shells until pickup.

Paradiso, Johansson’s Dining House & Restaurant, Maggie’s Restaurant and Liberty Road Seafood — just over the Frederick County line — came onboard and began saving shells.

Elyar said each time he went to Johansson’s Dining House & Restaurant, in Westminster, to pick up shells they asked a few more questions about the program. The staff was so intrigued that they set up a fundraiser to benefit Coastal Conservation Association.

Almost 200 people showed up on June 23 for an event that manager Sarah Redding called the Cluster Shuck. Offering oysters at $1 each, they asked for a donation to the CCA at the door.

“We raised some money to help pay for supplies, to fund us going out on the bay and costs for setting the reef, buying containers and making the program bigger,” Elyar said. “We’ve been talking about getting a trailer to go to oyster festivals to collect shells. The Cluster Shuck event created a whole new awareness about the oyster’s role in saving the bay.”

Elyar said Johnny Shockley, of Hooper’s Island Oyster Aquaculture, came to the event with his farm-raised oysters for everyone to taste. Susan Witmer, manager of Liberty Road Seafood, also attended to try farm-raised oysters.

“She loved them and is now only serving farm-raised oysters,” Elyar said. “Johansson’s is doing the same. The more people we get to eat oysters, the more shells we get [donated] to generate wild oysters, and if they are farm raised that means less oysters are being taken from the bay.”

Elyar said their next step is to find a public drop-off space and he is hoping the Carroll County Landfill will be that spot.

“We are working with the landfill now, waiting to find out if they will take it on,” he said. “We have a dumpster ready with a lid so birds will not swarm around it. The landfill has recycling for every other resource. This fits into that theme. We are putting it back into the ecosystem so it no longer goes to waste.”

According to Elyar, the chapter has been delivering oyster shells to ORP storage points since April 23, counting every shell.

“Every bushel of oyster shells a restaurant donates earns them a $5 tax credit at the end of the year,” he said. “That’s why we have to count the oyster shells. 100 shells equal a bushel. At the direction of ORP, we have become state certified for collecting shells through Maryland [Department of Natural Resources].”

Elyar said their group has collected 68 bushels of shells. That’s 37,000 shells — about 5,000 pounds. Their goal is to collect 300 bushel of shells — enough to build a reef with ORP.

He said a lot of the volunteer work is yet to come. After the stored shells have been cleaned and aged, volunteers will shovel the shells into mesh bags and transport them to be injected with spat. Then they will be planted in the bay, creating an artificial reef where they can grow.

“If no one does anything the bay is going to be completely destroyed,” Miles said. “Because of the amount of water the oysters filter we need them in the bay so that other natural species can survive.”

Hackett agreed.

“I’d like to get as many restaurants onboard with shell recycling as we can so we can try to bring back the oyster population,” he said. “I’d love to be able to see my kids and my grandkids fish on the bay just like I do.”

To find out how you can volunteer to help or if your restaurant or catering service is interested in recycling your shells with the Living Reef Action Campaign, call 410-977-3782. Learn more online at

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