The New Jersey shoreline continues to face tremendous challenges often associated with climate change, rising sea levels, beach erosion and increased storms.

That's why the American Littoral Society wants to protect these areas as well natural parts of the bay and natural habitats for fish and birds with natural materials.

Executive Director Tim Dillingham says one technique is to rebuild oyster reefs and reintroduce oysters back into New Jersey's waters.

Not only do oyster reefs filter water and control water pollution, but they also provide habitat for many marine animals and act as speed bumps and barriers to storms and waves, he said.

Recycling oyster shells

"The Shuck It, Don't Chuck It" campaign recycles oyster shells from local restaurants in northern Ocean and Monmouth counties. They keep and collect the shells after serving them to customers, Dillingham said. Then the society collects them and cures them for at least six months before returning them to the waters, building reefs, and restoring habitat.

Dillingham said this year, the society is expanding the program with a partnership with The Barnegat Oyster Collectives. These are aquaculturists, people who are growing oysters for restaurants.

"We really love the idea of working with local partners, local businesses, and local oysters to not only get this great, delicious product out to people to enjoy but then to bring the shells back so they can help protect nature and help protect the shoreline," he said.

So far, 5 tons of oysters have been recycled from about a dozen participating restaurants for the program this year. But once they get back to the work of re-oystering the bay's waters, they'll need thousands of tons of shells to get the ecology back up and going again.

Photo by Jon Callow on Unsplash
Photo by Jon Callow on Unsplash

The role of oysters

Oysters are ecosystem engineers. Dillingham said one oyster can clean up to 50 gallons of water per day. They are capable of taking out nutrients and plankton and other things that cause problems in the bay, as well as providing habitat.

As they grow into reefs, oysters provide lots of little spaces for crabs and other small marine animals. Oysters are a foundational species in the bays, which have unfortunately disappeared, Dillingham said. So this work is about putting them back into the ecosystem and replacing that missing piece.

How you can help

Dillingham said the public can help save the New Jersey shoreline too. He encourages residents to eat oysters at local restaurants. Look for oysters that are grown by the Barnegat Oyster Collectives. That's one way to close that loop.

"We're working towards and hopefully this year we'll have some public collection sites where folks who eat oysters at home, can drop their shells off and we'll get them back into the system," Dillingham said.

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