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Fells Point restaurant encourages shell recycling at oyster festival

Oysters are served at the Oyster Festival near Kooper's Tavern and Slainte on Thames St.
Oysters are served at the Oyster Festival near Kooper's Tavern and Slainte on Thames St. (Cassidy Johnson / Baltimore Sun)

As patrons at a Fells Point restaurant dined on oysters as part of an annual festival for the slippery mollusks, Tommy Price of the Oyster Recovery Partnership emphasized the importance of saving the shells.

The partnership's operations manager for shell recycling, Price said that with proper aquaculture practices, one recycled oyster shell can help create 10 new oysters.

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"They're producing a tangible commodity of oyster shells that we can be using to restore the Chesapeake Bay for oysters," said Price, referring to patrons of Saturday's 15th annual Oyster Festival at Kooper's Tavern and Slainte Irish Pub & Restaurant.

The event featured local oyster dishes, of course, as well as oysters brought in from far-flung locations, including New England, Virginia and Canada.

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The Oyster Recovery Partnership is an Annapolis-based nonprofit that collects oyster shells from restaurants across the state for its recycling efforts. Officials say eating oysters actually helps promote restoration efforts, if the shells are recycled. Maryland offers tax credits for recycling shells, with drop-off stations at many landfills.

Price directed patrons who had finished dining to toss their shells into bins and bushels. The shells will be planted with oysters in Maryland's waters.

Partnership officials say oysters were once so plentiful in the Chesapeake Bay that they were potential navigational hazards, but the bay has since lost about 99 percent of its native oysters. The partnership, which works with the Maryland Department of Natural Resources, says restoration efforts have led to more than 5 billion oysters being planted in the state's waters since 2000.

In addition to being a coveted delicacy — high in omega-3 fatty acids as well as vitamins B1, C and D — oysters filter water, and their beds serve as habitat for other marine life such as blue crabs and striped bass. Partnership officials say one oyster can filter up to 50 gallons of water a day.

Price said the aquaculture process involves aging the discarded shells for about a year to make sure they are clean. The partnership works with the University of Maryland Center for Environmental Science's Horn Point Oyster Lab Hatchery to obtain oyster larvae, which are then placed onto the shell. The shell is then planted in the water.

"Just like a barnacle will stick to anything, so will a baby oyster," Price said.

As the oysters grow, the shells serve as a nesting bed, protecting them from predators.

Price said if the restoration efforts weren't being conducted, the oyster population would be left to "whatever nature would allow, and unfortunately it hasn't been as productive as it's been in the past."

Kooper's Tavern general manager Jeff Bejma said the establishment's Oyster Festival on the Saturday after Thanksgiving has become a highly anticipated event for patrons. The feast was held in front of the restaurant, and the Oyster Recovery Partnership placed an informative display in a can't-miss spot: next to the line for refreshments.

"It used to be that the oysters flushed the Chesapeake Bay once a day; now, it takes one year for the bay to be flushed out," said Bejma, who added that the tavern regularly saves oyster shells it shucks each week.

"It's really big for us to recycle oyster shells," he said.

"Everybody wants to help out the environment," Bejma said. "Educating people to save oysters is huge. There are pictures of old Fells Point with a pile of oyster shells 70 feet high. It was just completely overfished, and the quality of water has been reduced because of that."

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