From the jazz bars of New Orleans to restaurants and kitchens across the country, oysters are the essential food of coastal culture in the USA. People there devour 2.5 billion oysters every year. Whether grilled, fried, or slurped raw on the half-shell, it all adds up to a lot of oyster shells - a resource taken from the sea and rarely returned.
Now those shells are being recycled to help rebuild oyster reefs and restore coastal wetlands. In little more than a year, a programme operated by the Coalition to Restore Coastal Louisiana (CRCL), a non-profit organisation, and funded by Shell has collected just over a thousand tonnes of shells from restaurants to place along the shoreline. That’s enough to fill more than 88 dump trucks and makes the programme the largest of its kind in the USA.
This winter, volunteers will stuff the sun-bleached shells into mesh bags and deposit them along the coast.
Louisiana is home to 40% of the country’s wetlands and oysters are important natural engineers of this environment. “The baby oysters like to cling to other oyster shells,” explains Nick Collins, a fourth-generation oyster farmer who tends the family reefs alongside his father and brothers. “They clump together into reefs.”
Oyster reefs trap sediment. This helps create shallow marshes and estuaries—the nurseries for one of North America’s largest commercial fisheries and refuge for more than 5 million migratory birds. The wetlands also help shield homes, businesses and ports on Louisiana’s storm-lashed coast.