Setting aside your shucked shells could secure succor for spats to grow into oysters.
Oyster-loving Central Virginians will be able to join oyster-serving restaurants in recycling the shells of the salt-water mollusks to propagate bivalves in the Chesapeake Bay when the Rivanna Solid Waste Authority opens a shucked shell collection point.
The solid waste authority will host a ribbon cutting ceremony with officials from Virginia Commonwealth University’s Rice Rivers Center at the McIntire Recycling Center at 11 a.m. on Wednesday.
The center’s new drop-off point supports a state-wide recycling program that began in 2013. The Virginia Oyster Shell Recycling and Restoration Program collects shucked shells from 50 restaurants and 30 public drop-off locations in Charlottesville, Richmond, Williamsburg, Newport News, Hampton, Norfolk, Suffolk, Chesapeake, Portsmouth, Virginia Beach and the Northern Neck.
The shells will give baby oysters — called spats — a place to attach and grow. The shells will be cured and placed in huge water tanks containing millions of the microscopic oyster larvae called spats that attach themselves to the shells.
“Once the container is filled, we haul it to our VCU Rice Rivers Center to cure for 12 months before it is sleeved into a mesh ‘sausage’ and freighted to our spat setting location on Gwynn’s Island in Mathews County,” said Todd Janeski, director of the recycling program. “We then place 200 to 250 bags of shells into tanks and introduce swimming oyster larvae to attach to the shell.”
Janeski said the loved (or loathed) slippery shell-dwellers with a distinctive, chewy texture and briny taste begin their lives swimming for home.
“Oysters are a free-swimming animal for about two weeks, seeking a solid surface to attach for their final home, and they prefer oyster shell,” Janeski said. “After about two to three weeks in the tanks, the [spats] have successfully attached and average 10 to 15 per shell.”
According to the Chesapeake Bay Foundation, an estimated 2,000 bushels of recycled oyster shells are placed each year in the bay and its rivers. Each recycled shell can become home to dozens of baby oysters. Spats-on-the-shell are provided to oyster gardeners who plant them in rivers and the bay to grow and expand oyster reefs.
“We planted nearly 20 million oysters onto new reef projects in 2019 through this process,” said Janeski. “So each oyster, having two shells, provides the home for 20 to 30 new oysters in the Chesapeake.”
The wild Eastern Oyster, technically called Crassostrea virginica, currently is hammered by water pollution, disease, habitat loss and overharvesting in the Chesapeake Bay and its tributaries. Bay officials estimate the current population at less than 2% of its peak number.
In Virginia, farmed oysters are replacing wild oyster harvesting with nearly $20 million in sales each year. There are now eight distinct oyster regions in Virginia, each with a unique flavor.
At Anderson’s Seafood and Catering, Ted Anderson carries three of the eight varieties: Chincoteague, Rappahannock and James River oysters.
“They have different flavors,” he said, standing beneath the pop-up tent on a U.S. 250 parking lot near the Boar’s Head Resort, from which he sells shellfish and fish. “The Rappahannock oysters are a bit salty, like Kite’s Country Ham while the Chincoteague oysters are very salty, like Smithfield Country Ham.”
The James River oysters?
“They don’t have as strong of a flavor, sort of like deli ham,” he said.
Whether farmed or wild, oysters filter water and create natural reefs that expand to provide habitat for blue crabs, striped bass and red drum and mitigate storm-induced shoreline erosion. As reefs decompose, they act like Tums, serving as an antacid to balance acidic waters.
Janeski said volunteers currently collect shells shucked for consumption from area restaurants.
“The top recycling restaurant in Charlottesville is Public Fish and Oyster,” he said. “Public was the first and has maintained to be the most consistent partner in the program.”
“We go through between 400 and 800 oysters on any given day, depending on the day,” said John Lindsey, front house manager at Public Fish and Oyster on West Main Street. “We put them in buckets, seal them tight and [volunteers] come by and pick them up once a week or so. We go through 3,500 to 5,000 oysters a week so that’s a lot of shells.”
Considering the effort to scrape patrons’ plates and save the shells from the trash, one may wonder why the restaurant goes through the extra effort.
“Why not? They offer to do it, they’re happy to do it and we like to be responsible,” Lindsey said. “It’s really not a lot of effort on our part and it also decreases the amount of trash we have to throw away and the number of trash bags we use.”
Janeski said oysters help to clean the bay and the rivers in which they live.
“Each adult oyster filters 50 gallons of sea water per day. A dozen oysters have filtered an Olympic sized swimming pool in their lifetimes so think that every time you eat and recycle a dozen oysters, you are supporting oyster restoration and clean water,” he said.
According to the Cleveland Clinic, a medical research and treatment center in Ohio, oysters, often served on the half shell over ice, are a healthy food that are low in fat, high in protein and loaded with copper, zinc, selenium, iron and vitamin B12.
The fact that they provide natural zinc, important for prostate health in men, may have led to the old wives’ tale that oysters improve sexual performance, according to the clinic’s website.
“Turns out, oysters are a rich source of important vitamins and minerals while being particularly low in calories,” Cleveland Clinic officials say. “In a serving of six medium-sized oysters, wild or cooked, you’ll consume less than 50 calories. Even breaded and fried, which we definitely don’t recommend, six medium oysters still only contain 175 calories.”
Officials say the drop-off point opens the recycling program to oyster lovers who cook their own. And Anderson said it’s the right time of year to shuck at home.
“Oysters are especially popular in months that have an ‘r.’ They’re sort of traditional for Thanksgiving and Christmas and New Year’s Day,” Anderson said, noting that he may sell a thousand or more oysters a month in fall and winter.
“When we cater weddings, we often set up an oyster stand and there are some people who never leave it, just eating one after the other. There are others who will try one and never come back,” he said. “You either hate them or love them. There doesn’t seem to be much middle ground.”