Oysters are an important ecological and economic resource. They create habitat for fish and shellfish, filter and clean bay waters, protect shorelines from erosion, and are a valued commercial fishery. Young oysters depend upon the hard shell substrate provided by reefs for attachment and growth. Although Texas is the the second largest commercial oyster harvest in the U.S., with millions of pounds of oysters harvested from its bays each year, no mechanism exists for shucked oyster shells to be returned to bay waters to maintain existing reefs and restore degraded habitat. Oyster reefs, once dominant habitats in estuaries worldwide, have experienced greater losses than any other marine habitat. It is estimated that 90 percent of oyster reef habitats have been lost, compared to historic abundance.
The oyster recycling program “Sink Your Shucks” was founded by the Harte Research Institute and the Texas A&M University-Corpus Christi College of Science and Engineering in 2009 by Dr. Jennifer Pollack, TAMU-CC Assistant Professor in the Department of Life Sciences, Dr. Paul Montagna, HRI’s Endowed Chair for Ecosystems and Modeling at Harte Research Institute, and HRI Chief Operations Officer Gail Sutton. The program was the first in Texas that reclaims oyster shells from local restaurants and returns them to our local waters providing both substrate to form new reefs and habitat for fish, crabs and other organisms.
Shell is gathered weekly from local business partners Groomer’s Seafood and Water Street Market, with over 1 million pounds collected as of August 2016. The project stages volunteer bagging events in March and April to place oyster shell on local reefs. With the help of volunteers, “Sink Your Shucks” has restored about 14 acres of oyster reef in the Copano and Aransas Bays. Public outreach is a major component of the Oyster Recycling program, and help to spread our message of environmental stewardship and educate the public about the oyster's role in our ecosystem. Oyster Recycling hosts teacher institutes; participates in seafood festivals across Texas; makes free science curriculum available to educators; and runs Oysters in the Classroom, a program that allows students the hands-on experience of studying and caring for oysters in their classroom before returning them to the reef.