A large pile of oyster shells in a clearing

Megan Hall: Welcome to Possibly, where we take on huge problems like the future of our planet and break them down into small questions with unexpected answers. I’m Megan Hall. 

One of the great parts about living in the Ocean State is getting to eat fresh shellfish. But what happens to the shells after we slurp down those oysters? Possibly reporters and lifelong Rhode Islanders- Will Malloy and Iman Khanbhai looked into the options.  

Will Malloy: Hi Megan! 

Iman Khanbhai: Hi! 

Megan Hall: So, what happens to the shells after we eat oysters? 

Will Malloy: They can just go in the trash, but a number of coastal states have created programs to gather up those oyster shells and return them to the water.

Megan Hall: Cool! Is that to keep them out of the landfill? 

Will Malloy: Yes, but there’s more to it than that. 

Iman Khanbhai: Oyster shells can actually help rebuild wild oyster reefs. 

Will Malloy: To learn more, we talked to Tim Mooney from The Nature Conservancy in Rhode Island. He says wild oysters are in danger. 

Tim Mooney: we have lost about 85% of our wild oyster population compared to say 100 years ago … And so putting more shell in the water is a strategy to recreate self-sustaining wild oyster reefs.

Megan Hall: How do these oyster shells help rebuild those reefs? 

Will Malloy: For one, they provide a good surface for baby oysters to settle and grow on. 

Iman Khanbhai: Those babies need hard surfaces and old shells are perfect candidates. 

Will Malloy: Plus, reefs based on fresh oyster shells make nooks and crannies that small fish can use as hiding spots from predators. Plus, they nurture diverse plant and animal communities. 

Iman Khanbhai: Oysters are also really good at filtering water. 

Tim Mooney:An adult oyster can filter 50 gallons of water in a day. And if you do that at scale, you’re gonna see changes in water quality and clarity.

Megan Hall: Cool! Let’s dump all of our oyster shells into the ocean! 

Iman Khanbhai: It’s a little more complicated than that. These reefs can’t just get built anywhere, Oysters only survive and thrive under very particular conditions. 

Will Malloy: Scientists at The Nature Conservancy in Rhode Island and at the Rhode Island Department of Environmental Management are in the process of figuring out exactly where new reefs would be most likely to do well. 

Iman Khanbhai: They’ve done some small-scale tests of potential locations to reestablish wild oyster populations locally. Right now, they have a couple dozen experimental reefs in ponds down in South County.  

Will Malloy: While they’re still working out what locations are likely to be successful, they have their sights set on something much bigger.  

Tim Mooney: Putting a little bit of shell here and a little bit of shell there, it’s not going to add up to enough to achieve the kind of water quality and fish habitat benefits that we’re looking for. Once we have the solid science on the best places to to build new reefs will be able to do this at scale.

Iman Khanbhai: In the meantime, the two organizations are working on building up a stockpile of shell so that when these plans are in place, they’re ready to drop. 

Megan Hall: How can I help? 

Will Malloy: Well, your oyster shells could do a lot of good, but Tim says…

Tim Mooney: that doesn’t mean everyone should go and start throwing oyster shells in the water wherever they are.

Will Malloy: Before shell can go in the water, it needs to sit outside and cure for a couple months to get rid of all the food waste or germs. 

Iman Khanbhai: So don’t go chucking your shucked oyster shells off the dock! 

Will Malloy: But if you want to support shell recycling efforts, think about eating at local restaurants or oyster festivals that donate their shell. 

Megan Hall: As if I need an excuse to enjoy an oyster festival! 

Thanks Will and Iman. That’s it for today. For more information, or to ask a question about the way your choices affect our planet, go to thepublicsradio.org/possibly. Or subscribe to us wherever you get your podcasts. 

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Possibly is a co-production of The Public’s Radio, Brown University’s Institute for Environment and Society and Brown’s Climate Solutions Initiative.

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