In Awendaw, South Carolina where George Motz's mother Mary was born and raised, recycling oysters is second nature. So when the Food Film Festival director organized an authentic oyster roast for the screening of his short "The Mud and the Blood," sending the 30,000 leftover half shells to the New York Harbor School was a no brainer. "In the South you throw the shells back in the water where they came from," he said.
In the wake of Hurricane Sandy, people like author Paul Greenberg and landscape designer Kate Orff have pointed to rebuilding New York's oyster beds as a possible solution for stabilizing the coastline. According to Harbor School's founder Murry Fisher, developing oyster larvae cling to the nutrients in discarded oysters shells, building a reef. The living structure filters the water, slows down wakes, and potentially calms storm surges. A single half shell can nourish twenty spat (the fancy term for oyster larvae).
At Fisher's Governor's Island technical high school, the students currently pick up 1,000 shells weekly from Oceana. He hopes to increase his collection to one million shells by next year but he said gathering the discarded shells from restaurants is difficult because only eastern mollusks can be put in the waters.
"We know that restaurants want to work with us but we haven't devised a perfect system yet," he said. Shells need to be bagged and stored in an airtight container with Pacific oysters eliminated from the batch.
Mermaid Inn chef Michael Cressotti thinks space as a major concern for recycling the shells. "If there was a program that would pick them up every other day like a linen service we'd think about it, but I don't have the facilities to store the shells for the entire week," he said.
Sandy Ingber, executive chef at Grand Central Oyster Bar and Restaurant, said he has done shell collection programs in the past, but currently the empty half shells go in the garbage. "They want them cleaned and we don't do that," he said. At the end of the night, trash cans can contain anywhere between 8,000 and 12,000 oyster shells. "If they pick up the shells after us, it's no problem, but it is very hard with how heavy they are."
Two-thirds of the oysters on his menu come from the East Coast and his top-selling oyster is the Long Island Bluepoint. He said he would be interested in a Manhattan oyster if it were FDA-certified. "Maybe someday when they clean up the New York harbor, but right now we're not there," he said.
Though Fisher said the oysters in the area are inedible, after the water quality improves, harvesting the oysters is possible. But for now, his experimental oyster beds in Hastings, the Bronx, Governor's Island, Bay Ridge, and Staten Island only improve the water's quality which can, over time, provide better habitats for fish in the city's harbor. "70 species of fish that thrive in oyster reefs are great for restaurants," he said. "We're trying to remind people what an important role they play in New York culture."
— Ashley Mason
[Photo: Grand Central Oyster Bar by Kalina]