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From the half shell back to the oyster reef

ANNAPOLIS — For the past year, the Oyster Shell Recycling Alliance has collected oyster shells from restaurants, caterers and seafood wholesalers in an effort to restore the dwindling oyster population in the Chesapeake Bay.

The program has collected nearly 2 million oyster shells in its inaugural year. Its efforts could help plant more than 20 million oysters back into the bay over the next year.

Instead of allowing thousands of oyster shells to be thrown away, the Oyster Recovery Partnership started the alliance in 2008 to recover them.

“Oyster shells are a limited natural resource that provide a place for new oysters to grow on,” said Stephan Abel, executive director of the Oyster Recovery Partnership, who also emphasized that oyster shells provide habitat for other marine life, such as blue crabs and fish.

The alliance is made up of 50 establishments from Maryland, Virginia and Washington, D.C., that collect a minimum of five, 32-gallon containers of cleaned shells to be picked up regularly by the partnership, Abel said.

Old Ebbitt Grill, a D.C. restaurant, started donating its shells in 2007 before there was a formal recovery program. It initially donated 50,000 oyster shells from its annual Oyster Riot event.

Since then, staffers from the partnership collect used shells from the restaurant on a weekly basis.

Old Ebbitt Grill sells an average of 3,000 oysters a day, said Christian Guidi, the restaurant’s general manager.

On Saturday, the restaurant held its first Oyster Matinee event, a preview to the Oyster Riot, which served thousands of oysters to 500 hungry customers. A portion of the event’s proceeds will go to the Oyster Recovery Partnership, Abel said.

In the last nine months, Abel said, alliance membership has doubled. Restaurants benefit from the program by saving money on trash costs. At the same time, they’re restoring a species that can help clean up the bay.

“It was natural for us to partner [with the program] and give back to a resource that has given so much to us,”” Guidi said.

Guidi said oysters act as “nature’s filtration system,” clearing harmful algae and sediment from the water.

A single oyster can filter up to 50 gallons of water a day, said Bryan Kent Gomes, who provides education and outreach for the Oyster Recovery Partnership.

After the shells are collected from establishments, they are delivered to Horn Point Lab Hatchery in Cambridge, which is operated by the University of Maryland Center for Environmental Sciences, Abel said.

A year later, oyster larvae are added to tanks where they can attach to shells and mature into spat, which are then planted in the bay.

“Through all these efforts, I think we can restore the oyster population in the Chesapeake Bay,” said Michael Rubino, aquaculture program manager of the National Oceanic and Atmospheric Administration, a partner of the program.

More than 85 percent of historic oyster reefs have been lost globally and 99 percent have been lost in the bay, said Rubino, who noted that this effort is the start of a long process.

“As much as it’s good to get shell, we are really trying to raise awareness of the issue,” Abel said.

Since 2000, the partnership has planted more than 2.5 billion oysters on 1,400 acres of oyster reef in the bay.