Virginia Oyster Shell Recycling Marks Record Increase

Chesapeake Bay Foundation’s volunteer-based program celebrates success of top-performing year

The Chesapeake Bay Foundation’s oyster shell recycling across the state of Virginia marked a record increase in the number of shells recycled in 2023, a significant gain with benefits for oyster restoration efforts, wild oyster fisheries, and aquaculture operations. 

In 2023, CBF’s shell recycling increased by over 1,000 bushels compared to 2022, bringing the total recycled shells to 2,500 bushels, equivalent to 50 tons. 

“Oysters can filter up to 50 gallons of water a day, playing a crucial role in improving water quality along with providing benefits to over 300 Bay species. But they also grow Virginia’s economy. The state’s seafood industry heavily relies on oysters, with Virginia oyster sales totaling an estimated $60 million per year. So they are an ecological tool as well as an economic tool,” CBF’s Virginia Oyster Outreach Coordinator Ryan Westpfahl said. 

Oyster shells are a limited resource but remain key to increasing the Chesapeake’s oyster population, supporting the wild oyster fishery, and assisting aquaculture operations. The tight supply and cost of oyster shell challenges large-scale oyster restoration work. While a growing number of restaurants recycle oyster shells, far too many shells still end up in landfills.    

To help increase the supply of oyster shells, CBF runs one of several volunteer-based shell recycling programs in Virginia. Volunteers pick up empty oyster shells from restaurants, oyster roasts, and other businesses. These shells are then cleaned, cured, and prepared for planting on oyster reefs.  

On April 3, CBF volunteers backed up a truck to Fuller’s Raw Bar in Hampton, ready to load blue and white bins with oyster shells from the restaurant. The pickup came a day after Fuller’s Raw Bar $1 Oyster night, which usually produces, according to John Ledbetter with Fuller’s Raw Bar, between 2,200 to 2,400 shells alone.  

In total, Fuller’s Raw Bar donates up to 6,000 shells weekly and is among the largest oyster shell contributors in CBF’s program, which includes 60 volunteers and 40 restaurants. Of the 400 bushels of shell recycled from Hampton last year, more than 300 bushels came from Fuller’s Raw Bar.  

Ledbetter said providing the recycled shells benefits everyone as well as the environment.  

Maggie Vaughan, a CBF volunteer for seven years, and Bonnie Kersta, a CBF volunteer since 2007, heaved bins inside the trunk until it was full, just as they do every week.  

“My father was a striped bass fisherman, and he would tell me how the pollution in the Bay was affecting striped bass. I knew I had to do something, and the oyster shell recycling is part of me giving back and paying homage to my dad,” Kersta said.  

Baby oysters, called spat, must attach to a hard surface such as empty oyster shells. One shell can become home to 10 or more oysters. In oyster restoration work, these spat-on-shell oysters are planted on sanctuary oyster reefs to increase oyster populations.  

Oyster reefs filter water, pollutants such as nitrogen and phosphorus, and provide habitat for fish, crabs, and other species vital to the fishing and seafood industries.     

Recycled oyster shell is also extremely important to Virginia’s oyster replenishment program, which supports the wild oyster fishery. Additionally, recycled shells are used by the Commonwealth’s growing oyster aquaculture industry.     

Shell recycling bins placed throughout the state also provide public drop-off locations for those with leftover shells. 


Vanessa Remmers

Virginia Communications & Media Relations Manager, CBF

[email protected]

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