What: Oyster Shell Recycling
Film By: UNO student and documentarian Lillie Napoli
Editor’s Note: NolaVie partners with students of UNO professor László Zsolt Fülöp, pairing them with artists, non-profits, environmental groups, and cultural entities to facilitate a live curriculum, that results in a short documentary. Filmmaker Lillie Napoli sits down with Sofia Giodarno, the Coastal Adventures Coordinator at Coalition to Restore Coastal Louisiana, to learn about Oyster Shell Recycling and how the program restores reefs that help to protect Louisiana’s eroding coastline. Since starting in 2014, the program has recycled over 12.6 million pounds of shell and protected over 8,000 feet of shoreline along the coast.
[Read the full transcript of the interview below]
CRCL was founded in 1988 as a way to sound the alarm bells for the coastal land loss crisis. CRCL also works with several other organizations that are part of the Mississippi River Delta Coalition, made of national and state organizations that are all working to solve the same problem.
My name is Sofia Giordano, and I am the Coastal Adventures Coordinator at Coalition to Restore Coastal Louisiana. I got involved with CRCL as an AmeriCorps member through Serve Louisiana. I serve two AmeriCorps service terms as the oyster shower cycling technician. I was really drawn to that position because I did my undergrad thesis on microplastics in the Pacific Ocean and the Gulf of Mexico. Keeping oyster shells out of landfills and the plastic pollution crisis were kind of on the same wavelength.
CRCL’s mission is to create a thriving sustainable coast for all through advocacy, restoration, education, and outreach, using all of our various programs. Our oyster shell recycling program was founded in 2014. It started with a grant from Shell of about a million dollars, which funded the program for a few years. It allowed us to pick up shells from participating restaurants in New Orleans, and we took those shells down to Buras, Louisiana, which is about an hour and a half away from the city. That site is now much closer to the city, about half an hour away in Violet. People eat their oysters at the restaurant, those oysters get put into bins, and then we have a recycling contractor come and pick up those bins to be brought to our shell curing site, which is our restoration headquarters in Violet, Louisiana. He dumps them out there, and they sit for a couple of months, and then we have volunteers come to the site. They bag the shells, and then we use that bagged shells to construct the reefs.
We get funding for our program through various grants, as most non-profits do. We also work with Chef’s Brigade, which is a mutual aid organization for restaurants. They came about during COVID-19, and they support our program by covering the cost for some of our restaurant partners to participate.
Our oyster reefs have two benefits to them. One is shoreline protection, as our reefs are acting as a wave break between the waves coming in and the shoreline. We’ve found that our oyster reefs reduce the rate of erosion by about 50 percent. Oyster reefs also serve as a habitat for all types of aquatic species. Oysters, when they’re larvae, float around the water column looking for some hard substrate to settle on, and that ideal substrate is other oyster shells because they see the oyster shells. They know they can grow there. Once we put our reefs into the water, the baby oysters come, and they settle, and then that will attract crabs and fish and birds. Once we put it out there, it becomes a whole self-sustaining ecosystem by itself.
Our programs help the community by supporting the fisheries industry. A lot of the people that we work with in coastal Louisiana are very reliant on water quality and habitat for these species that they’re harvesting, so our reefs are supporting the industry by creating habitat and more oyster growth. We also support the community by working with indigenous communities to protect their mounds. We could put our reefs in front of any random spot on the land, but finding somewhere that’s culturally significant increases the impact that our project has. We’ve worked with the Grand Bayou Indian village, as well as the Pointe-Au-Chien Indian Tribe, both of which are protecting sacred burial mounds that are very quickly eroding into the gulf. They’re trying to hold on to those last bits of land and hold on to those ancestors that are buried there.
People can get involved specifically in the oyster shell recycling program by eating at our participating restaurants. You can go to our website to see the complete list. You can also participate in our public drop-off if you enjoy oysters at home with your family and friends. You could bring your oyster shells to our public drop-offs. We have two locations at The Green Project and Glass Half Full. We do oyster shell bagging, tree plantings, and all types of really fun events. We give out free t-shirts, lunch, and other things needed. CRCL has a lot of programs. The oyster shell recycling program is within the restoration program. In the restoration program also exists our native plants program, where we plant native grasses and plants all around the coast from Southwest Louisiana to Southeast Louisiana.
We have our advocacy program, and they advocate for policies that support CRCL’s mission. We also have our outreach and engagement program, and they facilitate our future coastal leaders program, which is comprised of high school and college students that are interested in getting into the coastal field, learning more about coastal issues, and networking with others who share in their interests.
We do our best to educate students because coastal land loss is a long-term problem that requires a long-term solution. We focus a lot on educating future coastal leaders.