VA - Bill sent to Youngkin would reward oyster shell recycling

(The Center Square) – A bill sent to Gov. Glenn Youngkin this legislative session would reward individuals that recycle oyster shells – a measure supporters say could benefit several sectors across Virginia.

In the final days of the legislative session, lawmakers in the General Assembly voted to advance a bill to the governor's desk that would provide grants to anyone who donates oyster shells to nonprofits for use in restoration projects. The grants awarded would total $4 per bushel of oyster shells and be capped at $1,500 per person in a year.

The bill's author, Sen. Monty Mason, D-Williamsburg, told a committee of lawmakers last month the goal of the measure is to encourage oyster shell recycling and “keep the oyster shells out of landfills.”

If the bill is signed into law, supporters say it will reward businesses who have recycled oyster shells for years, while also encouraging new restaurants and businesses to do so. Several restaurants and businesses in various parts of the state participate in oyster shell recycling programs run by groups including the Chesapeake Bay Foundation, Friends of the Rappahannock, Lynnhaven River Now.

“So many restaurants are struggling to have enough staff on hand, make ends meet with inflation and are struggling with rising prices,” Julie Luecke, an oyster restoration specialist with the Chesapeake Bay Foundation told The Center Square. “The restaurants that participate in CBF oyster shell recycling program, they have all really said that this kind of reward for the current participants could not have come at a better time.”

"It's a reward for that extra effort that until now, has gone appreciated but not recognized in this kind of way," Luecke added.

Oyster shells are a limited resource in the commonwealth that supporters say is an important tool for addressing oyster populations, shoreline restoration due to erosion, reef restoration and water quality. According to Luecke, recycled shells provide a hard surface for oyster larvae to cling to in the water, resulting in the production of oyster clumps that grow into adults.

Luecke described a snowball effect that will occur by having more recycled oyster shell in Chesapeake Bay, noting more shells in the water will produce an impact across several sectors.

“The more shell that we have in the system that can go towards replenishment, the more we can harvest oysters,” Luecke told The Center Square. “The more oysters there are to harvest, the better the industry does, the better the economy in Virginia.”

Oyster harvesting has been a part of Virginia’s economy for hundreds of years. The over-harvesting of oysters dates back to the 1800’s, while the first efforts to restore oyster populations began in the 1930’s, according to CBF Chief Scientist Chris Moore.

After two diseases infected and impacted oyster populations in the late 1950’s and early 1960’s, Moore noted water quality impacts and increased sediment covered up historical oyster reefs, resulting in restoration efforts in recent decades to build back up oyster habitat.

Restoration efforts have proven fruitful, supporters say, noting the oyster population has been steadily increasing since bottoming out in the 1990’s. Current projections indicate this year will be the best oyster harvest the state has seen in 35 years, producing roughly 300,000 bushels.

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