GULF SHORES, Ala. — With an anticipated 130,000 pounds of shells to be collected by the end of a productive pilot period, Alabama’s oyster shell recycling program is set to expand into Gulf Shores and Orange Beach restaurants starting in January.
The successful program — the first multi-partner initiative of its kind in the state — is expected to save nearly 600,000 oyster shells from landfill in just nine weeks and return them to Alabama’s reefs as habitat for future oysters.
“This is an excellent program because it creates a positive cycle,” said Mark Berte, Executive Director of the Alabama Coastal Foundation, which designed the program and secured two years of funding from National Fisheries and Wildlife Federation officials.
“The more shells we collect from restaurants, the more opportunity we give new oysters to grow when we put them in the water, which means more oysters for restaurants to sell…and more to recycle,” Berte said.
The program involves weekly pickups from six seafood restaurants in Mobile along the Causeway who otherwise would toss their oyster shells as garbage or discard them somewhere out of the way on property.
Felix’s Fish Camp Grill, for example, used to line the perimeter of their parking lot with oyster shells; in fact, the restaurant became renowned for it on Travelocity and other tourism websites. A shell recycling event on November 31 filled more than 317 bins, weighing nearly 70,000 pounds, from Felix’s property — an estimated 341,092 shells.
“We had lined those along our parking lot so people weren’t driving off into the grass,” said Julius Harbison, General Manager at Felix’s Fish Camp, in Spanish Fort. “They had been there a year or two so they were some already seasoned shells.”
Harbison’s father was an oysterman so he understood the value of the program when ACF first approached the restaurant.
“Our owner asked me and my chef what we thought, and we said it was really a no brainer,” Harbison said. “It doesn’t take a lot of effort as a business, and for me personally, it’s amazing to be able to participate in something like this.”
The five additional restaurants, all located along the causeway in Mobile, include Bluegill Restaurant, Half Shell Oyster House, The Original Oyster House, Ed’s Seafood Shed, and Ralph’s and Kacoos. The program also reclaimed 12,880 pounds — an estimated 49,840 shells — from the Hangout’s annual Oyster Cook-Off in Gulf Shores on November 5.
Once shells are collected, they are transported by program partner Republic Services to an outside storage lot near the Jack Edwards Airport in Gulf Shores, and maintained by the Alabama Department of Conservation and Natural Resources. The shells are piled high there, turned regularly so sunlight can kill any bacteria, and naturally hardened or “cured” over a six-month period.
“Then they are returned to the water in restoration areas, where the hard oyster shells become preferred habitat for oyster larvae to settle on as juveniles to form new reefs,” said Beth Walton, Public Engagement Coordinator for ACF’s Oyster Shell Recycling Program.
“People down here have been talking about doing this for years. Everyone could agree that it was a great idea, but everyone was in the same position — none of us had anyone extra to take it on,” Walton said.
Enter a 2-year grant available through the National Fish and Wildlife Foundation (NFWF), and ACF’s project partners were glad to see them lead.
“It’s already pretty incredible,” Walton said. “This isn’t just a feel good exercise; we’re having an impact.”
In addition to the food value and restaurant economy, the recycling program promotes myriad benefits to the environment. An adult oyster can filter up to six gallons of salt water per hour, or 15 gallons per day. They consume the microscopic plants and animals called plankton and play an important role in maintaining good water quality in bays and estuaries. All of this leads to improved water quality.
Oyster reefs provide habitat for fish, shrimp, crabs, birds and other animals. The reefs are also natural breakwaters that protect shorelines.
ACF took a phased approach to the program, piloting the six initial restaurants to work out the kinks along the Mobile Causeway Route. Starting next month, ACF will add restaurants in Orange Beach and Gulf Shores, then continue to expand the program along the Alabama coast as they can. The grant funds the first two years of the project, so ACF is working toward a self-sustaining program beyond that time.
“We’re just wrapping up the pilot phase so this is no where near all the restaurants in Alabama,” said Walton, the outreach director. “We’d like to eventually have all Alabama restaurants participating statewide, but that’s way down the road. Right now, we’re glad people see that the thing they thought was trash is actually very valuable to the environment.”