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Here’s why some Tampa Bay restaurants aren’t throwing away oyster shells

Roughly 4 tons of used oyster shells are recycled each month from seafood restaurants across the Tampa Bay region for a new conservation initiative.
 
Reagan Fennessy of Gulfport empties 5-gallon buckets of discarded oyster shells onto a curing pad on Oct. 11 in Tierra Verde while working with Tampa Bay Watch’s oyster garden program. The shells will be cured in the sun for at least three months to ensure the eradication of any invasive or non-native species before they are used in vertical oyster gardens.
Reagan Fennessy of Gulfport empties 5-gallon buckets of discarded oyster shells onto a curing pad on Oct. 11 in Tierra Verde while working with Tampa Bay Watch’s oyster garden program. The shells will be cured in the sun for at least three months to ensure the eradication of any invasive or non-native species before they are used in vertical oyster gardens. [ DOUGLAS R. CLIFFORD | Times ]
Published Oct. 19, 2023|Updated Oct. 20, 2023

Veronica Neumann slid the blade of her shucking knife into the back of a Chesapeake Blue Point oyster.

With a crack and a slosh and a few twists of her wrist, the oyster broke loose. A briny smell lofted through her storefront.

“That’s good stuff,” Neumann said.

Soon, the gooey insides of this oyster, and hundreds of others, would be slurped up by the patrons of Hookin’ Ain’t Easy, a seafood eatery in St. Petersburg co-owned by Neumann and her husband, Matthew.

And for the first time in this restaurant’s three-year history, none of the leftover oyster shells would go to waste. Instead, they would be collected, cleaned and placed into the waters of the Tampa Bay estuary, where these shells will one day become critical oyster reef habitats and fend off coastal erosion.

Hookin’ Ain’t Easy this month became the latest of nearly a dozen seafood restaurants in the region to join the “Shells for Shorelines” program spearheaded by restoration nonprofit Tampa Bay Watch.

Veronica Neumann of St. Petersburg holds a box of Chesapeake Blue Point farm-raised oysters she sells at Hookin' Ain't Easy in St. Petersburg on Oct. 11.
Veronica Neumann of St. Petersburg holds a box of Chesapeake Blue Point farm-raised oysters she sells at Hookin' Ain't Easy in St. Petersburg on Oct. 11. [ DOUGLAS R. CLIFFORD | Times ]

For restaurants, the initiative is as simple as putting some shells in a bucket: Restaurant employees gather oyster shells left behind on plates, store them in several 5-gallon containers provided by the nonprofit and, at least once a week, a Tampa Bay Watch member picks up the shells.

“Usually when I talk to restaurants, when I tell them how it works, they’re like, ‘Oh, my goodness, that’s so easy,’” said Richard Radigan, who has been building Tampa Bay Watch’s shell recycling program over the past three years as its program manager.

“And that’s the point: It’s not something hard — and it can have a profound positive effect on our water,” he said.

Michelle Hlas arranges signs while opening Hookin' Ain't Easy in St. Petersburg on Oct. 11.
Michelle Hlas arranges signs while opening Hookin' Ain't Easy in St. Petersburg on Oct. 11. [ DOUGLAS R. CLIFFORD | Times ]

The trickier work comes once Radigan and his team collect the shells: For no less than 90 days, shells bask in the sun at the nonprofit’s curing station at Fort De Soto, where potentially harmful bacteria and any other pesky germs on the oysters die as time passes.

Once cleaned, the cured shells are transformed into vertical oyster gardens, or habitats that hang from docks or seawalls and attract fish and other wildlife. Or the shells are used in oyster bags, where they’re converted into reefs that will shelter Tampa Bay’s threatened and endangered aquatic species.

When the salt and temperature conditions are just right, oysters can “broadcast spawn,” which means they release sperm and eggs into the water. That microscopic larvae can then float up or down in the water, but it can’t swim against a current, Radigan said.

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The oyster larvae prefer to grow on other oysters, and it gives them the best chance of survival. But in worst-case scenarios, baby oysters can land on other hard structures like mangroves or dock pilings.

In short: The more oyster shells you have, the easier it is for oysters to grow, Radigan said.

“In a perfect world, we would be collecting 100% of the shells from 100% of the establishments that serve or sell oysters,” Radigan said.

“And then those oyster shells would go back into the water to serve as homes for new oyster populations, which increases our water quality and our ecological and economic benefits.”

A vertical oyster garden grows suspended from a rope at Tampa Bay Watch in Tierra Verde on Oct. 11. The gardens are made of recycled oyster shells from local restaurants and are suspended from docks to create a hard substrate to which juvenile oysters can attach and develop.
A vertical oyster garden grows suspended from a rope at Tampa Bay Watch in Tierra Verde on Oct. 11. The gardens are made of recycled oyster shells from local restaurants and are suspended from docks to create a hard substrate to which juvenile oysters can attach and develop. [ DOUGLAS R. CLIFFORD | Times ]

Tampa Bay was once lush with oysters

In 1898, John G. Ruge, the wealthy operator of an Apalachicola oyster canning factory, remarked in a report that “oysters grow plentifully” in Tampa Bay, “even upon trees and bushes.”

It’s one of several anecdotal accounts from that period indicating oysters were once abundant in Tampa Bay, Florida’s largest open water estuary.

But by the end of the 1800s, the bay’s oysters were beginning to be dredged as an ingredient in construction and road bed material, according to the Tampa Bay Estuary Program.

Between 1931 and 1974, estimates show, roughly 23.5 million tons of oyster shell was dredged from Florida oyster bars, with most of the region’s animals extracted from the Manatee River, Hillsborough Bay, Old Tampa Bay and Middle Tampa Bay.

Today, oysters cover just over 200 acres of Tampa Bay, likely less than 10% of what existed a century ago, according to Christopher Stallings, an associate professor at the University of South Florida’s College of Marine Science.

“Oysters are considered to be the most degraded marine habitat globally,” Stallings said. “So they’re definitely important to have around.”

Oyster shells dry on a curing pad on Oct. 11 in Tierra Verde before they are used to create vertical oyster gardens with Tampa Bay Watch’s oyster garden program. The shells will be cured in the sun for at least three months to ensure the eradication of any invasive or non-native species.
Oyster shells dry on a curing pad on Oct. 11 in Tierra Verde before they are used to create vertical oyster gardens with Tampa Bay Watch’s oyster garden program. The shells will be cured in the sun for at least three months to ensure the eradication of any invasive or non-native species. [ DOUGLAS R. CLIFFORD | Times ]

Oysters provide what scientists call “ecosystem services,” or benefits that improve human well-being and quality of life, Stallings said.

One example: An adult oyster can filter up to 2 gallons of water an hour, or nearly 50 gallons per day. If rainfall runoff dumps pollution like nitrogen near oyster beds, the shellfish can help pull the nutrients from the water.

Oysters also stabilize shorelines by creating bulky reefs that break up heavy waves and even a hurricane’s storm surge.

“Their restoration is important,” Stallings said, “Yet we’re still learning a lot about what works and what doesn’t.”

Feds fund the oyster program with big money

Restoration managers aim to increase Tampa Bay’s oyster coverage to 471 of the bay’s 256,000 acres by 2050, according to the Tampa Bay Estuary Program’s habitat master plan. As human-caused pollution continues to plague the waters of Tampa Bay, the shell recycling program offers a new tool to tackle poor water quality.

Each month, Tampa Bay Watch is collecting roughly 4 tons of recycled shells from the area’s restaurants — about the weight of two cars.

Since the project’s launch in February 2022, the program has recycled an estimated 102,000 pounds of oyster shells, according to the nonprofit.

Veronica Neumann of St. Petersburg shucks a Chesapeake Blue Point farm-raised oyster at Hookin' Ain't Easy in St. Petersburg on Oct. 11.
Veronica Neumann of St. Petersburg shucks a Chesapeake Blue Point farm-raised oyster at Hookin' Ain't Easy in St. Petersburg on Oct. 11. [ DOUGLAS R. CLIFFORD | Times ]

With those numbers, funders are starting to take notice. The federally operated National Oceanic and Atmospheric Administration just doled out a $1.1 million grant for the shell recycling program over the next three years, Radigan said. Private companies like the St. Petersburg-based Neptune Flood insurance agency and Duke Energy are also funding the initiative.

That cash infusion has extended the goal to have 20 restaurants signed on to the program by 2026. With 12 establishments already on board, it’s a target the nonprofit is almost sure to surpass, Radigan said.

When that day comes, it’ll mean even busier days for Reagan Fennessy, the nonprofit’s 24-year-old oyster shell program specialist.

Right now, Fennessy spends most of her time each week driving hundreds of miles from restaurant to restaurant, collecting the 5-gallon buckets full of used shells and dropping them off at the curing stations at Fort De Soto.

At times it can be smelly, grueling work. But the joy that comes with the job makes it all worth it, Fennessy said.

“It’s really encouraging, and every restaurant we’ve talked to about the program is really excited about it,” she said. “I think any restaurant that is making an impact on the environment in a positive way is going to be excited.”

Reagan Fennessy of Gulfport inspects vertical oyster gardens while working with Tampa Bay Watch in Tierra Verde on Oct. 11. The gardens are made of recycled oyster shells from local restaurants and are suspended from docks to create a hard substrate to which juvenile oysters can attach and develop.
Reagan Fennessy of Gulfport inspects vertical oyster gardens while working with Tampa Bay Watch in Tierra Verde on Oct. 11. The gardens are made of recycled oyster shells from local restaurants and are suspended from docks to create a hard substrate to which juvenile oysters can attach and develop. [ DOUGLAS R. CLIFFORD | Times ]

Oyster shell recycling isn’t unique to Tampa Bay.

Since 2011, the Galveston Bay Foundation in Texas has recycled nearly 2 million pounds of oyster shells. That has saved each participating restaurant $24,000 annually in waste pickup, and the shells have helped build nearly 2,000 feet of protected shoreline there, according to the foundation.

At 60 years old, Geof Garver spends his retirement volunteering at Tampa Bay Watch’s oyster program with the hope it may one day grow into a flourishing initiative like the one in Texas.

On a recent day at the beginning of October, he arrived to the pile of drying oyster shells in Fort De Soto with a car trunk full of shells from the Island Grille and Raw Bar in Tierra Verde.

It’s heavy work for a retiree, lifting buckets up and down each day. But like Fennessy, Garver said the sweat is worth it.

“I’m completely retired and I just wanted to do something that maybe other people didn’t want to do, but still serves an important purpose,” he said as he hoisted 5-gallon buckets from his car.

“We’re putting back into the bay what should be there, and it’s going to help preserve what we’ve got left.”

Restaurants say program is “eye-opening”

The response from restaurants so far has been positive once they realize how little effort it takes to be a part of the Shells for Shorelines program, Radigan said.

Popular seafood eateries including Oystercatchers, Crabby Bill’s, the Helm and Coco’s Crush Bar are all part of the initiative. Earlier this month, Bar Fly in Safety Harbor became the northernmost restaurant to join.

Taking part in the shell recycling program is an “eye-opening experience” for the staff and customers of St. Petersburg’s Oyster Bar seafood restaurant, said owner and operator Josh Cameron.

“It’s inspiring to see how a simple act — like saving oyster shells — can have such a profound impact on the health of Tampa Bay,” Cameron said in a statement.

At least half the shells from this box of Chesapeake Blue Point farm-raised oysters, which are sold at Hookin' Ain't Easy, will be donated to Tampa Bay Watch’s vertical oyster garden program.
At least half the shells from this box of Chesapeake Blue Point farm-raised oysters, which are sold at Hookin' Ain't Easy, will be donated to Tampa Bay Watch’s vertical oyster garden program. [ DOUGLAS R. CLIFFORD | Times ]

For Veronica Neumann, the co-owner of Hookin’ Ain’t Easy, taking part in the initiative is about something much bigger than her restaurant. It’s about creating a healthier world for her four children.

“What is the planet going to look like for my kids when they’re my age if somebody doesn’t help out when they can?” she said, a full box of Chesapeake Blue Points in her arms.

“We’re just really excited to do what we can. This bay is what feeds our family and our employees’ families. If we overfish it and don’t take care of it, it’ll never be there again. And then my kids won’t be able to see it.”

Get involved

Are you a restaurant owner, or do you know a restaurant owner, who might be interested in participating in the Shells for Shorelines program?

If so, reach out to Richard Radigan by emailing rradigan@tampabaywatch.org

Richard Radigan, left, Reagan Fennessy and volunteer Geof Garver, with Tampa Bay Watch’s oyster shell program, work to clean 5-gallon oyster shell collection buckets in Tierra Verde on Oct. 11.
Richard Radigan, left, Reagan Fennessy and volunteer Geof Garver, with Tampa Bay Watch’s oyster shell program, work to clean 5-gallon oyster shell collection buckets in Tierra Verde on Oct. 11. [ DOUGLAS R. CLIFFORD | Times ]