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Nonprofit plans Mississippi oyster shell recycling program

November 6, 2021 GMT

JACKSON, Miss. (AP) — An environmental group is using fines from the 2010 BP oil spill to plan Mississippi’s first oyster shell recycling program.

“It’s very straight forward — take the actual oyster shell and reuse it to help restore the very resource it’s providing. But the devil is always in the details,” said Alex Littlejohn, state director for The Nature Conservancy. “We want to learn from the other successful programs like this in other states, work through the kinks and make this a viable program for Mississippi.”

At least 14 other states have had programs that collect empty shells from restaurants, festivals and other venues and use them to build coastal reefs. A survey before the COVID-19 pandemic found such programs in all four Gulf Coast states, nine on the East Coast, and California, said Tom Mohrman, The Nature Conservancy’s director of marine programs.

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The programs often cover specific areas, such as Galveston Bay or Mobile Bay, but Mississippi’s coastline is small enough that one program could cover it all, he said.

Mississippi’s Gulf Coast generally has plenty of oyster larvae, but needs more hard surfaces where they can attach themselves and grow into oysters, the organization said in a news release Tuesday. Oyster reefs also create homes for other types of marine life, slow waves that erode coastlines, and purify water — each oyster can filter up to 25 gallons a day.

The Mississippi Department of Environmental Quality is backing the project with $650,000 from water pollution fines paid after the BP oil spill of 2010. Mohrman said The Nature Conservancy will use that money to analyze potential sources of discarded oyster shells, plan a pilot program, and then, if it’s approved, begin collecting shells.

Oyster populations and harvests have decreased over time in the Mississippi Sound and throughout the Gulf of Mexico. Causes can include overharvesting, natural and human-caused disasters, water quality, and loss of oyster reefs.

“Oyster shells are one of the best places for new oysters to grow. That is how they do it naturally, and with this program eating and enjoying oysters can be an act of conservation,” Mohrman said. “Implementing this pilot project is an opportunity to support the local fishing community, local restaurants, and to also give back to the environment while protecting and growing a valuable natural resource.”