On the terrace of a seafood restaurant in Houston, Texas’ largest city, a few women enjoy a local oyster dish: the breaded shellfish are coated with mayonnaise and served in a sandwich.
Sitting in the shade of a palm tree on a warm winter day, the guests have no idea that behind the restaurant a woman is giving seashells a second life.
Thanks to Shannon Batte, they will soon be part of a reef in Galveston Bay, 10 kilometers away. Out of sight, the Galveston Bay Foundation employee loads seven trash cans each weighing 175 pounds (80 kilograms) onto her trailer.
The boxes are full of not only oyster shells, but also water, discarded oyster forks and squeezed lemons. All year round, on Mondays, Wednesdays and Fridays, she goes around the foundation’s partner restaurants.
“Most people like to enjoy their oysters every month that contains an ‘r’,” Batte said. “So right now, right now, it’s December, so the oyster shell collection is a bit more. But because of Covid, there aren’t as many typos as we normally had in the past. ”
“Our customers really want to know where our oysters come from and what do you do with those shells,” said Tom Tollett, owner of Tommy’s Seafood Restaurant & Oyster Bar, quoted by the foundation. This is where the first oyster shells were collected almost 10 years ago, in March 2011.
Since then, the program has grown to include around ten restaurants.
Displayed on menus or boards, logos and diagrams show guests the fate of the thousands of seashells collected: they will simply return to the waters where they were formed. New oysters will settle and develop on these shells.
– A “coast of life” –
Galveston Bay is home to an ecosystem rich in seafood thanks to the brackish mixture of fresh water from rivers and salt water from the Gulf of Mexico.
In 1845, when Texas became a US state, the city of Galveston already had its own oyster bar.
But in September 2008, Hurricane Ike, which killed 113 people in the United States, destroyed more than half of the oyster’s habitat, choking their reefs with sediment.
To rebuild the ecosystem, the shells are now dumped at each source on rocks placed at the bottom of the water.
Where the current is stronger, the shells are stacked in nets and erected in dams.
It becomes new habitat and by breaking the waves, also helps to fight soil erosion.
“It’s a method we adapted from a sister organization in Florida, Tampa Bay Watch. It is used all over the country, especially on the eastern and gulf coasts, ”said Haille Leija, head of habitat restoration at the foundation.
“It allows the creation of a ‘living shore’ unlike hardened shore protection structures such as bulkheads.”
To date, the foundation has used its method to protect over 20 miles of coastline and has restored 20 hectares of salt marshes.
It collected 54 tons of shells in 2012, 125 in 2019 and 111 in 2020, despite the coronavirus pandemic.
Once submerged, the shells are also perfect shelters for crabs, shrimp and small fish which will feed the larger ones and contribute to the diversity of the environment.
– ‘Cure site’ –
Another benefit of the growing oyster population is that each shellfish naturally filters up to 50 gallons (190 liters) of water per day.
But before diving, Batte’s shells stop at what the foundation calls a “cure site” between Houston and the coast.
Batte, 33, empties his trash cans in a field, removes the oyster forks and spreads the shells on the ground.
Three months later, they will be turned over using a small backhoe, and then spend at least another three months in the fresh air.
This prolonged sun treatment in one of the three dedicated sites sterilizes the shells by killing bacteria and parasites.
The first flies arrive without delay and soon four wild boars are licking the shells and nibbling on lemons.
© 2020 AFP