Shell Recovery Partnership has best summer yet

Project partners up with Martha’s Vineyard restaurants to put shells back into the ponds where they help create shellfish habitat.

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Zach Gordon stands on this summer's shell pile following last Tuesday's shell pickup. – Cameron Machell

In 2009, Jessie Holtham was working at the Martha’s Vineyard Shellfish Group hatchery by day and as a waitress by night at Offshore Ale Company in Oak Bluffs. Based on her work at the hatchery, which focused on habitat, she knew that there was a need for shells to be recycled and put back into the Island’s ponds to provide a foundation for new growth.

She found it strange, she said, that at night she was throwing oyster and mussel shells into the trash at the restaurant.

“The shell recycling program was born out of experience and knowing there was a need and knowing we had the material already going into our dumpsters,” Ms. Holtham told The Times in a recent phone conversation. “Because I worked in both places, it was just an easy transition and I knew, on both sides, what it would take to make it happen. So, I just did it.”

Ms. Holtham, who has a bachelor’s degree in aquaculture and fisheries from the University of Rhode Island in Kingston, did a quick Internet search for shell recycling and found that many shellfish communities along the east coast were involved in various forms of shell recovery in order to help sustain the shellfish population. She applied for and received a grant to visit Georgia, North and South Carolina, and Maryland to research how these programs functioned.

In just one week, Ms. Holtham conducted her research and upon returning to the Island, she spent the winter months processing the information she had collected. By the spring of 2010, the Martha’s Vineyard Shell Recovery Partnership, backed by the Martha’s Vineyard Shellfish Group, was up and running. They partnered with some local restaurants, collecting shells from oysters, clams, and mussels that otherwise would have been thrown away.

She has since passed the torch to Emma Green-Beach. Those who are involved agree that this summer has been one of their most successful seasons yet. The group has collected 8,000 pounds of shell in the last two and a half months, according to the program’s data.

The pillars of the Shell Recovery Partnership, Ms. Green-Beach said, “are to reduce waste and create habitat to ultimately enhance shellfish resources.”

“The oysters need shell,” Ms. Green-Beach said. “They can set on rocks, and sand, and pilings, and all kinds of crazy things, but if they land on mud they will die.”

A ‘perfect marriage’

Their recent success is attributed to their partnership with Composting on the Coast, a food waste project that is spearheaded by Sophie Abrams. Between two drivers, Zach Gordon and Sakiko Isomichi, and one truck, the two groups combine forces and each day pick up hundreds of pounds of shell and food waste that would have been shipped off-Island and put in a landfill.

Six days a week, Mr. Gordon and Ms. Isomichi alternate going to 10 different restaurants for either shell, food waste, or both. For shell, they collect from Offshore Ale Company, Lookout Tavern, and Lola’s in Oak Bluffs; and in Edgartown they collect from Atria, Square Rigger restaurant, The Port Hunter, Edgartown Yacht Club, and L’etoile.

The partnership between the shellfish recycling group and Composting on the Coast has been “a perfect marriage,” Ms. Green-Beach said. Composting on the Coast has made it easier for more restaurants who don’t produce a lot of shell waste to participate in the Shell Recovery Partnership because they’re already going to the restaurant to collect food waste.

A pile of shell

Last Tuesday, during a ride along with Mr. Gordon, the Shell Recovery Partnership picked up roughly 180 pounds of shell. This largely successful operation, that collects thousands of pounds of shell and food waste each month, is run by a small handful of people.

“Jessie made it happen. Zach and Sakiko are the ones who make it happen on a daily basis. The restaurants are the ones who are willing to do it. I write the grants,” Ms. Green-Beach said.

A pick-up is not an easy process. One person goes out in the truck on his assigned day and is responsible for all the driving, all the lifting, and all the dumping and bin cleaning. Braving the summer traffic and finding parking space on the tiny and crowded streets of Edgartown and Oak Bluffs can be a victory in itself. Sometimes the bins can be as small as a couple gallon buckets or as a large as a trash bin that sometimes can have over 100 pounds of shell in it. The truck has a small lift on the back; loading the bins in and out of the truck from one restaurant to the next is like a smelly game of Tetris.

Once the truck is full, the shells are taken to a site in Edgartown and dumped in a pile. State law says that shells, particularly oyster shells, have to age for a year in order to be recycled, according to Ms. Green-Beach. The aging is critical, so that once they are put back into the ponds they don’t transmit shellfish diseases such as Dermo, a disease that degrades an oyster’s tissues.

Shell aging is a simple process: the driver picks the shells up from the restaurants, they dump them at the site, and the shells sit in the pile and age. They’re dried by weather, and bugs eat away the bacteria.

After the shells have aged for a year, the Edgartown highway department picks up the shells and they’re taken to Edgartown Great Pond, loaded onto the back of a boat, and pushed back into the water.

Tums of the ocean

Martha’s Vineyard Shellfish Group, in their fortieth year, has grown millions of shellfish – primarily quahogs, scallops, and oysters and also ribbed mussels and blue mussels as special projects, according to Ms. Green-Beach. She estimated that the group has put out five billion shellfish in those 40 years. Each summer, they produce 10 million quahogs, 20 million scallops, and set between five to ten million oysters.

The hatchery does not sell to oyster farmers. Instead, all shellfish are placed into ponds for commercial and recreational harvest, Ms. Green-Beach said.

A major goal of the Shell Recovery Partnership, and the hatchery in general, is to help create and restore habitat for shellfish. She said that one of the problems with oyster fishing is by default it destroys the habitat. That’s why currently there are efforts being made in both commercial and wild oyster fishing to recycle shells and put them back into ponds.

She said that the shells not only provide habitat but also help reduce the acidity in the mud because shell is made of calcium carbonate.

“We refer to shells as being like Tums in the ocean,” Ms. Green-Beach said.

A labor of love

Over the years, the shellfish group has learned to work out its kinks. Reliability was a major necessity for restaurants, as well as having proper containers with lids. They needed to know that someone would be there every day to pick up the shells.

Ms. Green-Beach said they had truck problems last year and had to put the program on hold. L’etoile was the only restaurant Ms. Green-Beach picked up at during that time because she said the chef and owner, Michael Brisson, is “a diehard.”

But so is Ms. Green-Beach.

“I picked up in my own car,” she said. “I have a Hyundai Sonata.”

Mr. Brisson, chef and owner of L’etoile in Edgartown, is a major supporter of the Shell Recovery Partnership. In a phone conversation with The Times, Mr. Brisson said he loved the program.

“It’s pretty basic,” Mr. Brisson said. “There’s nothing you can do that’s that easy to help the environment. Why not do it?”

L’etoile has been open for 31 years. He said that it takes a little bit of organized effort, but ultimately, there is less trash going into a landfill.

He’s been involved in the recycling program since the beginning and he said that this summer it has been easy, one of the smoothest years ever, and that he hardly notices they’re there. Mr. Brisson called it “standard operating procedure” and “part of the way of life” at the restaurant.

“As far as I’m concerned, anybody who doesn’t participate in this program — they can do all their farm to table and all their other things they herald — but to me, this is the biggest no-brainer,” Mr. Brisson said. “All the work is done by the shellfish hatchery. These people handle it all. All you have to do is say yes.”

Paul Bagnall has been the shellfish constable in Edgartown for 32 years and is also a supporter of the shell recycling program. Mr. Bagnall told The Times in a phone conversation that he hopes all food waste on the Island can be separated and fit into programs with more restaurants in the future.

“I haven’t had a lot to do with it because it runs itself,” Mr. Bagnall said.

The people that run the Shell Recovery Partnership believe in what they do, and part of their success is the passion that drives the project. Ms. Holtham said it’s a labor of love.

“It takes a passionate person to do crazy jobs like shell recycling and food recycling, because they’re not about the big paycheck,” Ms. Holtham said. “They’re about saving the planet.”