St. James community creates living shoreline from recycled oyster shells

Over 150 volunteers showed up on Wednesday to use 500 bags of oysters to create an oyster reef to help mitigate erosion.
Published: Jul. 13, 2023 at 7:55 AM EDT
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ST. JAMES, N.C. (WECT) - It’s an issue that impacts just about every coastal community in southeastern North Carolina: erosion.

But did you know your used oyster shells can serve a purpose once again?

For years now, a retirement community has partnered with a group of UNCW marine biologists to recycle oysters and clean the waters of an Intracoastal waterway.

The way the St. James community maintains its shoreline is by using natural materials and vegetation to protect and stabilize coastal areas instead of relying on hard structures like sea walls or concrete. It’s called the St. James Living Shoreline project and takes place at Waterway Park. Over 150 volunteers showed up on Wednesday to use 500 bags of oysters to create an oyster reef to help mitigate erosion.

The living shoreline is a combination of elements, such as an oyster reef and seagrass beds. These natural features help absorb wave energy, trap sediment and provide habitats for various marine life. We’re told that baby shrimps were found in the reef just a few days ago.

The oysters also act as filters by improving water quality and removing pollutants and excess nutrients. J. Taylor Ryan, the founder of the oyster program in St. James, explains that every oyster cleans 30 to 50 gallons of water per day. He also explained the process of recycling oyster shells and how the growth begins.

“They dry out anywhere from six to eight to twelve weeks before they can be put back in the water to attract larvae floating back and forth with a tide and looking for a hard surface. They find the hard surface and attach to a shell and lo and behold an oyster grow goes,” Ryan says. “We found the first year that after six weeks, we estimated on about 50 feet of oyster reefs that there were three-quarters of a million oysters growing. Just an incredible number.”

The bags had been packaged together over the last few months by students at UNCW. The shells originally came from the Shellfish Hatchery, which is part of the university’s Center for Marine Science. An intern with the Living Shorelines project attends UNCW and says that a lot of prep went into making this project possible.

“We’ve been prepping for this for a little over two months, we have to start bagging the shells that are going on the reef. I want to say, two or three months in advance, we’ve been having a couple of shell bagging events. Then we have to come down here and sample the reef as well, which happens with the low tide,” says Paige Calkins, Living Shorelines intern.

Molly Shoemaker, one of the youngest volunteers, explains what she learned and her favorite part of the day.

“When the water goes through the oysters, it filters the water and it makes it cleaner and that helps the environment. My favorite part was throwing down the oysters. I threw three bags down and those really fun,” said Shoemaker.

This group meets twice a year to maintain the living shoreline, and this year they tried a new eco-friendly net to hold the shells in place after rough water and storms had knocked shells loose. We’ll see how that impacts the living shoreline moving forward.