That shell you ate from this weekend at your favorite oyster bar may help to restore Long Island's decimated shellfish population.
Islip nonprofit Seatuck Environmental Association and Brookhaven Town have launched a program to collect used mollusk shells from local restaurants as part of a plan to seed local harbors with infant oysters.
Five restaurants participate in the program, which began earlier this year, and Seatuck officials are hoping to line up more, as well as recruit more volunteers to help collect shells.
Oysters sold in restaurants typically are commercially grown in single shells that can be offered as part of a meal. But in their natural habitat, oysters grow on top of one another and form reefs. That makes them different from clams, which burrow as individuals into sandy bay bottoms.
"Oysters like to grow on other oysters, and there are no oyster shells out there," Seatuck water quality scientist Maureen Dunn said in an interview. "There aren't enough oyster reefs in the bays."
Seatuck volunteers collect used shells and bring them to Brookhaven's composting facility in Manorville, where they bake in the sun for about six months to eradicate bacteria.
The shells then are taken to Cedar Beach in Mount Sinai, where Brookhaven operates a shellfish hatchery with thousands of young clams and oysters. There, the shells are placed in a tub with baby oysters, called spat, which latch onto the shells.
Eventually, the shells and spat will be deposited in Great South, Moriches and Mount Sinai bays, town officials said. The hope is that they will form reefs that will spawn future generations of oysters.
“They seem to thrive and do much better when they have something to anchor them,” Brookhaven Supervisor Edward P. Romaine said. “Their chances of survival increase tremendously.”
Romaine said he plans to have some town employees help collect used shells from bars and restaurants.
Collecting shells also reduces the amount of waste dumped in landfills, and improves water quality because a single oyster can filter up to 50 gallons of water a day, removing algae from the bay, Dunn said.
She added that more oysters also could slow the rate of acidification in local waters. High rates of acidification —the process by which water absorbs more carbon dioxide as the gas increases due to fossil fuels and other factors — reduce pH levels and cause clams to grow smaller or die.
Richard Remmer, owner of the Snapper Inn in Oakdale, which soon will start participating in the program, said the restaurant has been throwing spent oyster shells into its regular trash. Now workers will set them aside in buckets, which will be picked up by Seatuck.
“I said yes immediately,” said Remmer, who said therestaurant uses about 30,000 oyster shells each year. “For the business, it is cutting back on the amount of waste we need transported. For the business, it’s something I look forward to explaining to my customers.”
Doing their part
Five restaurants participate in a program run by Seatuck Environmental Association and Brookhaven Town to collect used oyster shells
H20 Seafood & Sushi, Main Street, East Islip
Prime, North New York Avenue, Huntington
Tellers: An American Chophouse, Main Street, Islip
Catch Oyster Bar, North Ocean Avenue, Patchogue
Snapper Inn, Shore Drive, Oakdale
Restaurants and volunteers interested in taking part in the program can call Seatuck at 631-581-6908.