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Oyster Shell Recycling

North Carolina has launched an innovative recycling program to collect oyster shells from individuals and businesses and place them back overboard to help turn the tide on declining oyster stocks. Baby oysters begin life as free-floating organisms but quickly settle to the bottom attaching themselves to hard surfaces. That’s why oysters grow in clumps on pilings and concrete, but their favorite most productive place to grow is on other shells. A mound of oyster shells placed in brackish water with good tidal flow will quickly become colonized by a multitude of marine organisms, including oysters. This mound, also called an oyster reef, serves a number of purposes – first and foremost, it helps produce oysters.

Secondly, it provides habitat for other beneficial organisms, such as algae, worms, barnacles, crabs, small minnows and fish. The small fish attract a diversity of larger fish and before you know it, you have a community of critters congregating at your reef and all you did was put the shells over – in the right spot.

Oysters serve an additional important purpose - they clean water by feeding on plankton and waterborne detritus. One oyster can filter up to 50 gallons of water a day, so the larger and healthier our oyster population, the cleaner the water.

Most of the recycled shells are used in annual cultch planting. The shells are loaded onto barges and sprayed off with a high-pressure water hose to create reefs. These sites are located in brackish to salty coastal waters. Shells make great homes for oysters. A single oyster produces millions of eggs annually that are carried by currents and tides to surrounding areas, enhancing oyster production in adjacent waters. Once the shells are placed on a reef they begin to attract baby oysters. Oysters grow to harvesting size in 2 to 3 years.

One individual may not be able to create a sizable reef, but by pooling our shell resources, researchers and scientists can construct large reefs in prime oyster growing areas enhancing oyster productivity and providing hook and line fishing opportunities for the public. So take your shells destined for the trash heap and turn them into an estuarine treasure by participating in the North Carolina Oyster Shell Recycling Program.

Locate a recycling station at this link.

Read and print the N.C. Oyster Shell Recycling brochure