for National Geographic News
North Carolina restaurants can now toss oyster shells into the recycling bin rather than the trash can.
Following a three-year pilot project, the state is funding a long-term effort to create new reefs from recycled oyster shells.
Lawmakers hope the initiative will regenerate North Carolina's coastal oyster population and, in turn, stabilize the state's fishery. The state has classified oyster reefs as "essential marine habitat."
"We will be collecting shells from restaurants and shucking houses, taking them to sea, and placing them in areas the pilot project research shows reefs can thrive," says project leader Craig Hardy, of the North Carolina Division of Marine Fisheries.
Eastern oyster (Crassostrea virginicus) larvae can swim up to a hundred miles (160 kilometers) before they hunker down to grow into adults. While larvae can settle around docks or boat hulls, their preferred habitat is an oyster shell on an oyster reef.
A hundred years ago, the region's oyster beds were so large that ships plying the East Coast of the United States from Georgia to Maryland had to navigate around them.
But pollutants and overfishing have reduced the harvest by 97 percent over the last century.
Marine biologists view the mollusk as a benchmark species. Its health reflects the overall aquatic health of both coastal waters and the habitat of up to 300 other marine species, including shrimp, speckled sea trout, and rockfish.
Oysters also serve as natural water filters, making seas cleaner for other ocean species.
An individual oyster filters up to 50 gallons (190 liters) of water daily, transforming pollutants into harmless sediment on the ocean floor.
"They significantly reduce particulates from the water," said Troy Alphin, a marine biologist at the University of North Carolina at Wilmington.