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Hauling old oyster shells from restaurants can help new oysters grow

  • Ron Rayner secures a 20-gallon bin full of oyster shells outside Newick’s Lobster House in Concord on Wednesday. ELIZABETH FRANTZ / Monitor staff

  • Culinary manager Steven Glover and Ron Rayner lift a 20-gallon bin full of oyster shells onto Rayner’s truck outside Newicks Lobster House in Concord on June 22, 2016. Newicks was the first of four Concord area restaurants Rayner visited to pick up shells on Wednesday. He’s been collecting shells to be used in the restoration of oyster beds in the Great Bay for four years. (ELIZABETH FRANTZ / Monitor staff)

  • Oyster shells from Newick’s Lobster House are seen in Ron Rayner’s truck on Wednesday.

  • Culinary manager Steven Glover (left) and Ron Rayner lift a 20-gallon bin full of oyster shells onto Rayner’s truck outside Newick’s Lobster House in Concord. Newicks was the first of four area restaurants Rayner visited to pick up shells. ELIZABETH FRANTZ photos / Monitor staff

  • Ron Rayner stands next to a 20-gallon bin full of oyster shells outside Newicks Lobster House in Concord on June 22, 2016. Newicks was the first of four Concord area restaurants Rayner visited to pick up shells on Wednesday. He’s been collecting shells to be used in the restoration of oyster beds in the Great Bay for four years. (ELIZABETH FRANTZ / Monitor staff)

Monitor staff
Published: 6/23/2016 1:51:20 AM

Plenty of people take home doggie bags from restaurants. Ron Rayner takes home oyster shells by the hundredweight.

“Oh, yes, I like oysters,” said Rayner, who lives in downtown Concord. “I like the little suckers, both raw and cooked.”

But it’s not leftovers from his own meals that Rayner hauls off from Concord seafood restaurants each week. Rather, he is among a number of volunteers collecting empty shells as part of a long-range program to return the American oyster to New Hampshire.

“I wanted to help with the restoration of Great Bay as well as restoration of shellfish themselves,” said Rayner, who is “on the edge of retirement” from a career as a wastewater engineer, which included a stint overseeing shellfish restoration in Connecticut. “This is a good way to do both.”

Rayner collects shells weekly from four Concord-area restaurants – Newick’s Lobster House, O’s Steak and Seafood, Makris Lobster and Steakhouse, and The Weathervane – and stores them in his yard in “various containers, tightly sealed.” Every month or two, he loads a few hundred gallons of shells into his pickup and drives them to the University of New Hampshire’s Kingman Farm in Madbury. Each gallon weighs about 4½ pounds.

In Madbury, the shells sit outdoors for up to a year so that flies can clean off all of the organic material. They then get dumped into Great Bay estuary, that huge tidal area stretching west of Portsmouth, to create a place for new oysters to grow.

Rayner is alone at this job in Concord, but eight volunteers have a similar collection on the Seacoast, where more people order oysters on the half shell.

“We run at capacity – we couldn’t handle more restaurants right now. We’ve had calls from Newburyport (Mass.) in the south to Portland, Maine, in the north, but we can’t take them,” said Jeff Barnum of Coastal Conservation Association, a group of recreational saltwater fishermen that runs the Oyster Shell Recycling Project.

The project just received a donation from Harding Metals of Northwood. It is providing 30-square-yard containers called roll-off to collect the shells, which greatly cuts costs and processing time. Harding Metals is involved in metal recycling, so aiding oyster shell recycling made sense.

Oyster restoration is a long-term project for Great Bay estuary. Oysters are desirable partly because they are a valuable commodity – about a dozen people are commercially growing oysters in special locations around the bay as part of a separate program – but also because they are filter feeders that remove material from water, providing free, 24-hour pollution control.

As late as the 1990s, the Great Bay still had 1,100 acres of healthy oyster beds, despite a long decline in numbers caused by overharvesting and pollution. It was estimated that these oysters could filter all of the water in the bay in just two or three days, Barnum said.

Then a disease called MSX, caused by a single-celled parasite, tore through the population, leaving less than 100 acres of healthy beds intact. This was bad enough, but it created a vicious cycle that threatened to wipe out oysters entirely.

The problem is that oyster larvae can’t grow if they are lying in mud or sea grass or gravel. If they don’t land on a hard, calcium surface after being released into the water by the parent oyster, they will die. Old oyster shells left by a previous generation are the best landing place, but if there isn’t a large enough oyster bed nearby, the chances that a free-floating larvae will happen to land on an old shell gets reduced. The entire population can fall into a death spiral.

Enter humans, who for about four years have been dumping leftover restaurant shells in selected locations as part of a program organized by the Nature Conservancy and the UNH Jackson Estuarine Lab. The program has created about 20 acres of new oyster bed reefs – a far cry from 1,100 acres, but an improvement.

The Nature Conservancy is helping the restoration by taking some shells and hand-rearing oyster larvae on them in the lab before putting these pre-loaded shells into the beds.

“They’re giving the reef a jump start; there are so few spawning events in Great Bay,” Barnum said.

Collecting the shells requires some effort on the part of the restaurant, Rayner said. Kitchen staff have to save one half of the bivalve shell during preparation (the meal is “on the half shell,” after all) and servers have to remember to toss the other half of the shell “in a 5-gallon bucket, minus the food, the lemons, the kale.”

The oyster restoration project will hold a fundraiser Aug. 19 in Portsmouth that will, not surprisingly, center on consuming the tasty bivalve, including the New Hampshire Oyster Shucking Championship. Search the internet for Piscataqua Oysterpalooza to find out more.

(David Brooks can be reached at 369-3313, dbrooks@cmonitor.com or on Twitter @GraniteGeek.)


David Brooks bio photo

David Brooks is a reporter and the writer of the sci/tech column Granite Geek and blog granitegeek.org, as well as moderator of the monthly Science Cafe Concord events. After obtaining a bachelor’s degree in mathematics he became a newspaperman, working in Virginia and Tennessee before spending 28 years at the Nashua Telegraph . He joined the Monitor in 2015.



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