From Restaurant to Reef

By on July 24, 2023

Victoria Blakey, Coastal Specialist oversees the Restaurant to Reef program loading up recycled oysters.
Sign at Blue Water Grill & Raw Bars dumping trailer.
Local volunteers and alternative spring breakers from Appalachian State University fill up buckets of oyster shells.
The students and volunteers unload hundreds of oyster shells transported to Pea Island in trucks.
A student fills her kayak before she heads out to dump the shells in the new patch reef.
A student heads out into the sound to dump her oyster shells in the designated patch reef location.
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Coastal Federation program works to recycle OBX oyster shells

Every Tuesday morning, Colington Harbor residents Sharron and Rick Hildebrant have a routine. First, they head to the bowling alley in Nags Head for a couple of hours of bowling, and then they head down the street to Dirty Dick’s Crab House and Mulligan’s Grille to collect pails upon pails of used oyster shells that the restaurants save for them each week.

The two of them, in their mid-70’s, load the five-gallon buckets into their pickup truck and drive the load to their designated drop-off point at Jockey’s Ridge State Park. There, they dump the shells and drive the buckets back to the restaurants to rinse them out to be ready for to be filled again.

The Hildebrants are part of a group of six to eight core volunteers for the Coastal Federation’s Restaurant to Reef Program, an oyster shell recycling program that turns oyster shells collected from local participating restaurants and put them back into the water, creating oyster reefs which provide new habitats for fish and shellfish.

The program, piloted in 2018 when the state-run oyster shell recycling program ended due to budget cuts and staff reductions, is a way for the Federation to bring oyster shell recycling to the Outer Banks through the help of restaurants and volunteers.

“Oyster reefs are very important, because they provide habitat for a large variety of fish and crabs that are part of the local seafood industry here on the Outer Banks. They’re highly valued,” says Victoria Blakey, Coastal Specialist with the N.C. Coastal Federation.

She points out that throwing oyster shells in the trash is against the law, “but it’s not regularly enforced. And so sometimes, it can get lost in the chaos of it all, and so that’s why we’re trying to promote this official recycling program across our 20 coastal counties.”

The Coastal Federation reports that North Carolina’s oyster population has decreased by 90% since the early 1900s. The reasons are varied, from habitat loss, to pollution, to harvest pressure. Oyster reefs, or dense aggregations of oysters that form large colonial communities, provide a home to over 300 adult and juvenile marine species including other vanishing species such as crab, flounder, and shrimp, and are becoming sparser and sparser.

According to the Federation, oysters are considered a “keystone” inhabitant of our estuaries—providing what it calls the three “F’s”: food, filter, and fish habitat. Oysters support the production of a variety of commercially viable species on the Outer Banks, to the tune of $62 million annually. A 3.5-mile-long oyster reef can produce up to 6,900 pounds of crab and shrimp for harvest. They are also powerful filters, helping to take out pollutants, excess algae, and sediment from the water.

“A healthy adult oyster can filter up to 50 gallons of water a day,” said Blakey. “And so if you think about that on a grander scale, as an oyster reef, that’s a lot of water that can be filtered. And so it helps with our water quality. And oyster reefs also help with shoreline stabilization. So they have multiple benefits.”

Blakey explains that while the central and south offices in North Carolina focus their programs on partnering with waste haulers and contractors to recycle shells, the northern office does things a little differently by partnering with local restaurants, although they do have five drop-off points across the Outer Banks for private citizens. For recruiting restaurants, the Federation does research to find which restaurants have high half shell sales and then reach out to the top producers.

Once a restaurant gets on board, the Federation provides all the buckets, trash cans, dump trailers and other supplies the restaurant needs to store the shells. Currently there are eight participating partners—Dirty Dick’s, Mulligan’s, Blue Water Grill and Raw Bar, Awful Arthur’s, The Sugar Shack, Black Pelican, Two Roads Tavern and the Town of Duck. Blakey says that last year, when she joined the Federation and began overseeing the project, they had three restaurants.

“So it’s growing steadily,” she said. “But we are dependent on our volunteers for shell collection from the restaurants, and so where we have volunteers, we can increase our capacity to restaurants. But if we don’t have volunteers, then it’s kind of like this chicken and egg situation where you want to increase the number of shells you’re collecting, but you also have X amount of capacity to collect those shells,” said Blakey.

According to Blakey, this is where it comes down to marketing and promoting volunteer opportunities that are available, getting people excited, “but also letting them know that it’s a tough, stinky job.” The pickups times usually require someone to be available during the weekdays. The volunteers also need proper transport with sufficient space to carry up to 60 buckets of oyster shells. The buckets can be 30-50 pounds apiece, so there is a physical demand as well.

Not exactly downplaying the challenges of the job, Blakey added that there’s “also just enduring the sweat, the heat. Sometimes the buckets, especially in the summertime, have flies or maggots or you know, you name it, they’re sitting outside. And then there’s also foods that are still sometimes on the shells, and trash…It’s a job that requires grit and dedication.”

But the volunteers that spoke with the Voice say none of those factors phase them. John Thomas, who has volunteered with the project since its inception in 2018 and won the North Carolina Governor’s Volunteer Service Award in 2021 for his volunteer service to the program, says the rewards far outweigh the conditions. According to him, helping get oyster shells back into our waters is a no brainer.

“I’m a big recycler,” said Thomas, adding that he also volunteers at Roanoke Island Festival Park when they have concerts and gets extremely frustrated at how many people throw their cans in the trash can when the recycling bin is six inches away. “For an industrial nation, we are so far behind other countries. And that’s one of the reasons I got involved with the oyster shell program is they get reused, and they get reused to grow more oysters.”

Sharron Hildebrant explains that she, too, has always been a recycler.

“Oh, it’s very fulfilling to think that you’re part of the circle of life, that we can be helpful, and, you know, not have a whole bunch of oysters go into the garbage, the trash, which is such a waste. You know, I love that feeling,” she said.

So far, the Coastal Federation has used the oysters supplied from local restaurants for a few reef projects in our local waters. In 2019-2020, the Federation used approximately 2,000 bushels of loose, recycled oyster shells for the Wysocking Bay project. The project site is 2.93 acres. They recently completed one patch reef at Pea Island with the help of several volunteer groups over three different days. That reef is 100 feet long by 10 feet wide by 3 inches tall.

As for the Federation’s vision for the future “ideally, I would love for it to move further south down to Hatteras Island,” said Blakey, adding that in May, she attended an oyster summit with 250 attendees from agencies across the state. She moderated a panel on oyster shell recycling and the future of the program.

“I believe most people were in agreement that there needs to be a state coordinated effort, because there’s only so much volunteers can do,” she continued. “Not that the volunteers aren’t very helpful. But if we want to expand this program across the state, we need a state coordinated effort with waste haulers and other organizations, and just people to kind of get the ball rolling on a grander scale.”


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Comments

  • Glenn

    “N.C. oyster population has decreased by 90% since the 1900’s”…if accurate, that paints a bleak picture for the oyster industry. Thanks for sharing information about this important mission.

    Monday, Jul 24 @ 7:56 pm
  • charlie

    To learn more about oysters…..go to youtube….type in oysters coastal studies institute.
    There are 2 presentations about oysters….
    They are fun to listebn to and very informative… They are from a few years ago but they are still very relative…
    ps…CSI has many of their presentations on various subject on youtube..

    Tuesday, Jul 25 @ 7:33 am