From Restaurants to Reefs

Galveston Bay Foundation’s Oyster Shell Recycling Program provides a tasty way to save the Bay

If you’ve lived in the Houston-Galveston area long enough, chances are you’ve encountered a Gulf Coast favorite – oysters! Maybe you’ve tried them raw and fresh out of the Bay or enjoyed them grilled up with some cheese sprinkled on top.  

But did you know that this special treat is a vital tool to restore the Bay? Oysters are natural filters. One oyster filters 50 gallons of water a day, so each oyster in the Bay makes a big difference. The more oysters, the cleaner and clearer our water will be. 

For the first two weeks of their life, oyster larvae or “spat” float in the Bay in search of hard substrate, preferably an oyster shell, to latch onto. The more shells in the Bay, the more oysters will thrive. If there isn’t hard substrate or shell, the baby oysters will land in the sediment and die.

Since Galveston Bay Foundation’s Oyster Shell Recycling Program started in 2011, more and more shells have been finding their way back into the Bay, creating fertile ground for future oysters. The idea originated with a local restaurant. 

“We started selling oysters, but had no place to put the oyster shells,” said Tom Tollett, owner of Tommy’s Restaurant and Oyster Bar in Clear Lake. 

A passionate conservationist, Tom couldn’t bear to put the shells in the trash any longer and came to the Galveston Bay Foundation to see if we could help. We now recycle more than one ton of shells from Tommy’s every week. 

“It’s an incredible resource that we must sustain, and we’re making some great inroads and providing new reefs for oysters,” he said.

The Dickinson Oyster Restoration Project

Over the next several years, Galveston Bay Foundation staff and partners will monitor the Dickinson project to determine the effectiveness of reintroducing recycled oyster shells, all from local restaurants, to create new oyster habitat in the Bay.  

“Each business that provided oyster shells to this project played a vital role in its success,” said Bill Baker, contractor and advisor on the project. “Individually, those businesses would not have been able to build this reef, but by working together with the guidance of Galveston Bay Foundation, the project has been completed and the reef is now providing enhanced ecological benefits to the Bay.”

Baker spent a day in the fall floating on a barge with two massive piles of oyster shells flanking a hulking crane, scooping and dumping tons of shells into the water.

“It’s incredible,” said Haille Leija, Habitat Restoration Manager for Galveston Bay Foundation, upon seeing the barge full of shell for the first time. 

Galveston Bay Foundation will continue to pursue large-scale endeavors like the Dickinson Bay reef restoration project, as well as smaller, volunteer-based reef restoration projects around the Bay. We have plans to complete the oyster shell breakwaters along our Sweetwater Preserve and Trinity Bay Discovery Center shorelines within the year. 

“We’re are excited for the future of the program as we work towards expanding our shell recycling services into the Houston metroplex,” said Haille. “We’ll be celebrating this expansion with the inaugural Houston Oyster Festival in April 2020.”

You can help us return shells back to Galveston Bay when you — Eat oysters at one of our partner restaurants:

  • Tommy’s Restaurant & Oyster Bar
  • Tookie’s Seafood
  • Aquarium Restaurant – Kemah TX
  • Crazy Alan’s Swamp Shack
  • BLVD Seafood
  • Capt. Benny’s Seafood
  • Topwater Grill

Learn more