Oyster shell recycling program off to hot start

By using the discarded shells from restaurants through the Oyster Shell Recycling Program to replenish the reefs, Alabama oystermen will be able to take advantage of the increased production of the popular mollusk. (Photo | David Rainer)

Oyster consumption has been occurring along the Alabama Gulf Coast for millennia with the Indian Shell Mound on Dauphin Island as historical evidence.

Fast forward to the 21st century and dining on oysters has increased exponentially. Instead of creating shell mounds, the Alabama Oyster Shell Recycling Program is designed to use the discarded shells in more creative and productive ways.

With the Alabama Coastal Foundation leading the way, a group of individuals and organizations started devising a plan to recycle the shells. Those involved included Chris Sherrill with the Flora-Bama Yacht Club, Chandra Wright with the Alabama Gulf Coast Convention and Visitors Bureau, Alabama Marine Resources Division Director Chris Blankenship and Judy Haner with The Nature Conservancy.

“We’ve needed an oyster shell recycling program in Alabama for a while,” Blankenship said. “We have been meeting to put together a shell recycling program that would work long term.

“There was an opportunity to get a grant from the National Fish and Wildlife Foundation (NFWF) to implement a pilot program to get this started. The Alabama Coastal Foundation stepped up as the lead agency and received the grant to begin a two-year pilot program to demonstrate the effectiveness of a shell recycling program in Alabama.”

Mark Berte, Executive Director of the Alabama Coastal Foundation, said the grant from NFWF is for a two-part process – education and sustainability.

“Our whole mission is to improve and protect Alabama’s coastal environment through cooperation, education and participation,” Berte said last week at Gulf Shores. “And this program is all of the above. We work with restaurants to educate them that what they thought was trash is actually a valuable natural resource. The more shells we collect, the more shells we can get back into the water that will allow more oysters to grow and complete a nice, positive cycle.”

The first phase of the shell recycling program went into effect in the fall of 2016 with six restaurants along Battleship Parkway (Causeway) at the head of Mobile Bay.

“Those restaurants are all close together, so it was easy for Republic Waste Services to run the route, pick up the shells and do the hauling,” Blankenship said. “The shells are trucked to our Marine Resources property in Gulf Shores, where the shells are stored and seasoned so they can be used in several different projects, from replenishing reefs to grow more oysters to shoreline stabilization projects.

“There will be myriad uses for the shells, including oyster gardening. The important part is they are not going to a landfill. Now they’ll be going back in the water to grow more oysters.”

Larval oysters, known as spat, must attach to a hard surface to grow, and recycled oyster shells can provide an abundance of this vital structure.

Last week, the recycling program expanded with an additional collection route in the Gulf Shores and Orange Beach area, which puts the total number of restaurants involved in the recycling program at 13.

“The program has gained a lot of good public support,” Blankenship said. “We’re really glad this has taken off. The program is growing.”

A celebration of the expanded program was held at two locations on the Alabama coast last week, including the Original Oyster House in Gulf Shores.

Joe Roszkowski, co-founder of the Original Oyster House restaurants, said the number of oysters that go through their restaurants will quickly add up.

“We serve quite a few oysters,” Roszkowski said last week at the ribbon-cutting ceremony. “In fact, we serve about 5,000 pounds a week in the summertime; that’s are quite a few shells. We know what oysters mean to the community and sponsor the oyster trail and Mobile’s oyster gardening program. We learn how oysters impact our environment, our community and, of course, our health. For years these dedicated scientists, environmentalists and educators have worked to get oyster shells back in the water. We’re so fortunate to be given the opportunity to help pilot Alabama’s first oyster shell recycling program at our location on the Causeway.

“This program aligns with our core values of stewardship and will enhance the oyster population and help prevent coastal erosion. Best of all, this program will bring attention to how important it is to get the shells back to the reefs instead of the landfill.”

As of the end of last week, more than 650,000 oyster shells had been collected.

Gulf Shores Mayor Robert Craft said the 2010 oil spill is a reminder that we should never take our environment for granted.

“This is an important first step forward,” Mayor Craft said. “This is what I think we learned, or should have learned, from the oil spill. When the oil spill happened and we couldn’t fish in the waters, eat the seafood or enjoy the environment, what happened was that nobody came. They don’t come here because they like the mayor or Gulf Shores. They came here for the environment. Because when it couldn’t be used and enjoyed, people didn’t come.

“If you connect those dots, what is the most important thing we need to do to maintain the quality of life in our community that is so special? That is to protect the environment. Part of that environment is having oysters that we enjoy eating. Our challenge here by recycling oyster shells is to recreate the reefs and grow more oysters.”

Blankenship said the goal of the program is to eventually get all of the oyster shells that are discarded at restaurants along the Alabama Gulf Coast.

“Right now, we want to get at least the top half of the oyster that doesn’t go to the table,” he said. “We’re working with the restaurants to collect the bottom half of the shells from the table so we can get all the oyster shells.

“Nothing grows oysters as well as oyster shells.”

Blankenship said the program set a conservative goal of collecting 2.7 million shells, but it should easily exceed that number.

In two years we’ll be well over the goal with the way the program has started,” he said. “The ultimate goal would be to make the recycling program self-sustaining after those two years, after the consumers and restaurants see the value of recycling those oyster shells. Instead of having the grant help pay for the transportation of the shells, the money the restaurants pay for the shells to go to the landfill can be used in the recycling program. Restaurants pay by the ton to haul off waste. Oyster shells that go in the trash count toward that tonnage. The goal is to get the restaurants to separate out the shells, and instead of hauling them to the landfill, they would go to the Marine Resources Division to be recycled.

“The value of the shells that can be used for restoration projects would make this self-sustaining after two years.”

Blankenship predicts the consumption of oysters along the Alabama coast will continue to grow, which will mean more shells for recycling.

“Oysters are becoming more popular,” he said. “There used to be a limited number of people who ate oysters. Now it’s becoming a much more popular seafood item.

“With the growth of the oyster aquaculture industry in Alabama, we only see that market getting stronger.”

David Rainer is public information manager and outdoor columnist for the Alabama Department of Conservation and Natural Resources. His column appears weekly in The West Alabama Watchman. 

Looming budget cuts threaten ADCNR services

The state budget impasse in the Legislature in Montgomery could soon have far-reaching impacts on those who love and enjoy the abundant natural resources Alabama has to offer.

Alabama Department of Conservation and Natural Resources Commissioner N. Gunter Guy Jr. and the directors of the four divisions – State Parks, Wildlife and Freshwater Fisheries, Marine Resources and State Lands – have taken that message across the state in the past week to highlight those impacts if proposed cuts to the DCNR budget become reality.

At the third stop on that tour at Spanish Fort’s 5 Rivers Delta Resource Center on Tuesday, Commissioner Guy implored the public to become involved in the process.

“We’re here today to get out a message,” Commissioner Guy said. “That message is we need your help. We have a looming budget crisis in Montgomery. Everybody knows about it, but it’s important we talk about it to our constituents, that if this is not solved, it not only will have a negative impact on our department, but it will have a negative impact on you, your family, your friends and your community.”

Conservation Commissioner N. Gunter Guy Jr. speaks to members of the media at 5 Rivers Delta Resource Center in Spanish Fort about the state budget situation that could significantly impact the DCNR’s management of Alabama’s natural resources. Commissioner Guy said all operations within the four divisions of the Conservation Department would be affected. (Photo by David Rainer)

Conservation Commissioner N. Gunter Guy Jr. speaks to members of the media at 5 Rivers Delta Resource Center in Spanish Fort about the state budget situation that could significantly impact the DCNR’s management of Alabama’s natural resources. Commissioner Guy said all operations within the four divisions of the Conservation Department would be affected. (Photo by David Rainer)

 

Commissioner Guy said most people don’t realize the Department of Conservation and Natural Resources does not get any money from the state’s General Fund. The DCNR’s budget comes from license sales, fees and federal funds, much of it from matching dollars from excise taxes paid by the public.

“We don’t get any General Fund money, but the Legislature has taken more than $27 million through administrative transfers in the last four years,” Commissioner Guy said. “We can no longer sustain these types of transfers. In the three budgets that have been proposed this year, they have proposed transfers from our agency of $5.4 million, $9.2 million, and in this last special session it was $18.3 million.”

Commissioner Guy said all the DCNR has requested from the Legislature is to be level-funded so no services or facilities will be adversely impacted.

“If our department is not level-funded, the consequences to our department, its employees and to the public will be devastating,” he said. “We can’t talk about exactly what will happen because we don’t know. Some examples, depending on the severity, would include the closure of parks and their services.

“With cuts of $18.3 million and that magnitude, we’re also talking about closures of (Wildlife Management Areas) and other Wildlife and Freshwater Fisheries operations; closures of Forever Wild operations and facilities; closures of Marine Resources Division operations and facilities on the coast; closures of lands and coastal programs; and loss of significant federal funding.”

Commissioner Guy said those kinds of cuts will have a ripple effect that will quickly reach the public.

“They won’t be buying groceries,” he said. “They won’t be buying gas. It’s part of the economic engine that we know our department represents. It’s probably more than $5 billion when you add all our four divisions, including many, many dollars in local and state taxes. When people in Montgomery talk about cutting government, it’s about cutting the public. It’s about cutting those services. It’s about cutting that income that people depend on that is part of what we are about. That’s the important message to everybody.”

Commissioner Guy asked the public to become involved and contact their legislators to support efforts to raise enough revenue to fully fund the government so essential services won’t be impacted.

“This is a problem we all face, and your voice does make a difference,” he said. “Lastly, I’ve heard people say, ‘This is just a scare tactic.’ Well, folks, it’s not a scare tactic for us. It affects real life and real people. It affects their families and communities.”

Another aspect of the looming cuts pointed out by Chuck Sykes, Wildlife and Freshwater Fisheries Director, is the effect on federal funds already distributed to WFF and Marine Resources. For every dollar in license sales, $3 in matching funds comes from Pittman-Robertson Act and Sport Fish Restoration money.

Testimony from Mayor Jeff Collier and Chris Nelson of Bon Secour Fisheries said the cuts would impact seafood production and could cause oyster reefs on the Alabama Gulf Coast to shut down. (Photo by David Rainer)

Testimony from Mayor Jeff Collier and Chris Nelson of Bon Secour Fisheries said the cuts would impact seafood production and could cause oyster reefs on the Alabama Gulf Coast to shut down. (Photo by David Rainer)

“If the Legislature takes $1 from either Marine Resources or Wildlife and Freshwater Fisheries, it puts us in diversion,” Sykes said. “That means we stand to have to send back $25 million to the U.S. Fish and Wildlife Service because we’ve violated the Pittman-Robertson Act and the Sportfish Restoration Act by using these dollars for something other than wildlife.

“And $1 is as good as $5 million. There’s an amendment to the Alabama Constitution, Amendment 272, that says nothing that goes into the Game and Fish Fund can be used for anything other than managing and protecting the wildlife resources of Alabama and paying for the administration of the department that does that. The problem I’m seeing is that is hunters’ and fishermen’s money. They have paid into the system. This is not General Fund money. So they are basically robbing the hunters and fishermen, period.”

Sykes said if WFF staff is furloughed, gates will be locked. WMAs will be closed. Law enforcement officers won’t be available to respond to poaching or trespassing complaints.

“God forbid we have a natural disaster, like the tornadoes that hit Tuscaloosa or the ice storm that shut down Birmingham a couple of years ago,” he said. “The first people they call are us because we have four-wheel drives and chain saws and know how to work outside. There are people out there who say, ‘That’s fine, shut the government down.’ They need to think long and hard about that. Just because they don’t hunt or fish or own land, our department impacts all 67 counties.

“Instead of being held up as an agency that is self-funded, managing its money properly, providing services for the citizens and being an example of something positive, they’re trying to steal from it. It doesn’t make sense to me.”

Patti Powell, Director of State Lands, said budget cuts could have an impact on efforts to get Alabama’s fair share of the settlement money from the Deepwater Horizon oil spill.

“We’re still competing with the other states on how that Deepwater Horizon money will be distributed,” Powell said. “If there is any indication that we won’t have the staff to properly implement that program, that alone could hurt us in getting that money.”

Dauphin Island Mayor Jeff Collier and Chris Nelson of Bon Secour Fisheries talked about the consequences on Alabama’s seafood production if Marine Resources can’t fulfill its roles that include boat ramp maintenance and seafood monitoring programs. Without MRD monitoring, oyster reefs would be closed to harvest.

Marine Resources Director Chris Blankenship said that the commercial and recreational fisheries on the Alabama Gulf Coast account for about 11,000 jobs and a $1.2 billion economic impact.

State Parks Director Greg Lein said DCNR has been very open over the last few months about the concerns over a lack of a budget.

“As a consequence, we felt it was incumbent on us to speak to the public and be very open and honest about what these concerns are and about our experiences over the past four years where we have experienced the transfer of funds from our agency, and also the last four months,” Lein said. “Transfers at any level will harm our agency’s programs. Transfers at the level that have been proposed will cause catastrophic harm to our agency’s programs, the services we provide to the public and the state’s economy.”

David Rainer is public information manager and outdoor columnist for the Alabama Department of Conservation and Natural Resources. His column appears weekly in The West Alabama Watchman.