Oyster shells given new life as reefs off Texas coast

HOUSTON (AFP) – On the terrace of a seafood restaurant in Houston, Texas’ largest city, a few women are enjoying a local oyster dish: the breaded mollusks are slathered in mayonnaise and served in a sandwich.

Sitting in the shade of a palm tree on a warm winter’s day, the diners have no idea that behind the restaurant a woman is busy giving the shells a second life.

Thanks to Shannon Batte, they will soon form part of a reef in Galveston Bay, 10 kilometres away. Out of sight, the Galveston Bay Foundation employee loads seven trash cans each weighing 80 kilogrammes onto her trailer.

The cans are full of not just oyster shells but also water, discarded oyster forks and squeezed lemons. All year round, on Mondays, Wednesday and Friday, she makes the rounds of the foundation’s partner restaurants.

“Most people like to enjoy their oysters in any month that has an ‘r’ in it,” said Batte. “So currently, right now, it’s December, so the oyster shell collection is a little more. But due to Covid there’s not quite as much shell as we’ve normally had in the past.”

“Our customers really want to know where do our oysters come from and what do you do with those shells,” said Tom Tollett, owner of Tommy’s Seafood Restaurant & Oyster, quoted by the foundation. It was here that the first oyster shells were collected almost 10 years ago, in March 2011.

Shannon Batte loads bins full of oysters shells, behind Tommy’s Seafood Restaurant & Oyster in Houston. PHOTO: AFP

The programme has grown since then to include some 10 restaurants.

Displayed on menus or tables, logos and diagrams show guests the fate of the thousands of shells collected: they will simply return to the waters where they were formed. New oysters will settle and develop on these shells.

Galveston Bay is home to a seafood-rich ecosystem thanks to the brackish mixture of fresh water from rivers and salt water from the Gulf of Mexico.

In 1845, when Texas became a United States (US) state, the town of Galveston already had its own oyster restaurant.

But in September 2008, Hurricane Ike, which killed 113 people in the US, destroyed more than half of the oysters’ habitat, smothering their reefs with sediment.

To rebuild the ecosystem, the shells are now dumped each spring on rocks placed at the bottom of the water.

Where the current is stronger, the shells are piled into nets and erected as dams.

This becomes a new habitat and by breaking the waves, also helps fight soil erosion.

“This is a method that we adapted from a sister organisation in Florida, Tampa Bay Watch. It is used across the nation, particularly on the East and Gulf coasts,” said Haille Leija, who is in charge of habitat restoration at the foundation.

“It allows for the establishment of a ‘living shoreline’ in contrast to hardened shoreline protection structures such as bulkheads.”

To date, the foundation has used its method to protect more than 20 miles of coastline and restored 20 hectares of salt marshes.

It collected 54 tonnes of shells in 2012, 125 in 2019 and 111 in 2020, despite the coronavirus pandemic. Once submerged, the shells are also perfect shelters for crabs, shrimp and small fish that will feed larger ones and contribute to the diversity of the environment.

Developing the oyster population also offers another advantage: each mollusk naturally filters up to 90 litres of water per day.