How Louisiana’s oyster shells make the incredible journey from reef to table and back to reef.

By JJ Waters

Imagine looking out your window and a seeing a piece of land the size of a football field disappearing.  Now, imagine a football field vanishing every 45 minutes.  If you live in Southeastern Louisiana that’s your window.  Louisiana’s estuarine wetlands are disappearing at an astounding rate. Since 1930, 1,900 square miles of wetlands have been lost, and it’s estimated that 34 years from now, by 2050, another 700 square miles will be gone.

Bagged shells ready to go back to the reef

Bagged shells ready to go back to the reef

You might be thinking, “Wow. How terrible for Louisiana.” But the fact is, it’s terrible for all of us.  40% of our wetlands (48 contiguous states) are in Louisiana.  And 80% of annual losses are occurring there. The wetlands provide a number of functions and values (flood protection, water filtration, wildlife habitat, recreation, subsistence, etc.) and are vital to our ecology and economy.  There are many, reasons to protect the wetlands; and one of those is Fisheries.

We need Louisiana wetlands.

75% of the nation’s commercially harvested seafood comes from estuarine wetlands.  1/3 of the nation’s oysters, and ¼ of all blue crabs come from Louisiana. And from a recreational fishing standpoint, Red Drum, Tarpon, Trout, Flounder, Bass, Jack Crevalle and numerous other recreational species depend on the wetlands for their survival.

This issue is at such a critical point that Louisiana has developed a $50 billion plan to reverse the effects that both humans and nature have caused.  Both governmental and non-profit organizations are doing their part to address this issue, and one organization, the Coalition to Restore Coastal Louisiana (CRCL) is tackling the problem in a unique way.

They decided to just bag it.

Dickie Brennan showing the author how it’s done

Dickie Brennan showing the author how it’s done

In 2014, with the aid of a $1million grant from Shell, the CRCL launched the Oyster Shell Recycling Program (OSRP). OSRP recycles oyster shells from local New Orleans restaurants and then uses them to rebuild oyster reefs and shoreline habitat.  Once the new oyster reef is built, new oysters begin to grow, which in turn, improves water quality, provides fishing habitat, supports the local economy and acts as a protective storm barrier.

The OSRP depends on a lot of help. First, you and I eat the oysters from one of the 25 participating New Orleans restaurants, then, they recycle the shells.  A local recycler, Phoenix Recycling, picks them up and delivers them to a curing and storage area donated by the Department of Wildlife and Fisheries, in Buras LA.  Six months later, volunteers jump into action to complete the cycle. So, how do they get from the curing pile back to the water?

Dickie Brennan gave me an opportunity to find out first-hand.

Along with employees from Dickie Brennan & Co., Shell, CRCL, and other volunteers, I was invited to go to Buras, LA for a shell bagging day.  Bagging the shells is the last step in completing the recycling process before returning the shells to the wetlands.

Learning the ropes

Learning the ropes

After donning our boots and gloves, and a brief “shoveling and bagging” tutorial from CRCL, we dug in.  (One wouldn’t think it necessary to be taught how to shovel shells, but quite frankly, they had some pretty good pointers on how NOT to do it, for which I was grateful, later on.)

We shoveled the shells into mesh bags that would be transported to the Biloxi Marsh in St. Bernard Parish.  By the end of our day, we had shoveled 19 tons of recycled oyster shells!  I felt rather proud of our accomplishment… until I learned that we needed another 1,281 tons to complete a ½ mile reef.  I reminded myself that neither Rome nor a Biloxi Marsh reef, were built in a day.

Aside from the sense of accomplishment in doing one’s part, and being outdoors on the water, the greatest delight for me was the people I met. (I decided you can learn a lot about a person when you shovel shells side-by-side all day.)

Every single person there that day took immense pride in doing something important to make a difference and did it with great joy.

Our team of volunteers from Shell, Dickie Brennan & Co. and CRCL

Our team of volunteers from Shell, Dickie Brennan & Co. and CRCL

As Rick Tallant, Shell’s Gulf of Mexico East Asset Manager, said, “Many of the Shell volunteers who came out here today call Louisiana home and are very fond of the culture and love to be able to support the community.  We really view this event as a win-win for the community, the environment, for everybody. Shell is proud to be involved with this great event alongside our colleagues from Dickie Brennan’s, who have been fantastic partners in supporting the Oyster Shell Recycling Program.”

And it occurred to me, as we drove back north to New Orleans, and I watched the Buras coastline sink from my view, that for everyone else on that bus, this was their window.


*For more information on The Coalition to Restore Coastal Louisiana and the Oyster Shell Recycling Program or how you can volunteer visit

*For more information on artificial reefs in Louisiana visit:

*For more information on wetlands loss visit:

*For more information on Shell’s Sustainability Programs visit:

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