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Shell Recycling Program

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Program Overview

Early in their life cycle, Eastern Oyster (Crassostrea virginica) larvae require a hard substrate to attach to and grow in order to build reefs. When oysters are harvested, not only is the individual oyster removed but also habitat (their shells) for future generations of oysters. Not having the necessary hard substrate available for larvae to settle on can stifle an oyster populations sustainability.

Traditionally, when oysters and clams are served at a restaurant, the discarded shell is placed in the trash and headed directly to the landfill. Several coastal states have developed programs to recycle shell from restaurants and enhance existing oyster beds by replanting it. This practice involves restaurants saving the discarded shells from their seafood dishes and making it available for oyster enhancement efforts. The benefits are multifaceted and include savings for restaurants on waste disposal costs, shell being kept out of area landfills, and alternatively used to directly benefit the ecological health of our coastal waters by rebuilding a critical habitat.

Oyster spat on shells
Oyster spat on shell
Click to enlarge

In February of 2019, NJDEP Marine Fisheries Administration (MFA), the Jetty Rock Foundation, Rutgers Cooperative Extension, and Stockton University agreed to partner on a conceptual shell recycling program based in Atlantic City, New Jersey. The program was developed after the Hard Rock Hotel and Casino in Atlantic City (Hard Rock) expressed interest in recycling shell to enhance oyster habitat in the Atlantic City region after the success of a similar program in Long Beach Township, NJ. The program started with just the Hard Rock but many logistical challenges such as storage, equipment needs, and transportation quickly came to light. The program was not going to be able to continue successfully under the original approach let alone expand in any appreciable way.

After careful consideration and discussions to address the logistical challenges, the MFA decided to take on the overall coordination role by dedicating staff, equipment, and resources to the program. The program has expanded despite impacts from COVID-19 and now collects shell from the Hard Rock, Dock's Oyster House (Dock's), and the Knife & Fork Inn with pressing interest from additional casinos and restaurants.

Shell recycling fits within the MFA's overall mission to manage New Jersey's marine habitat, resources, and industry. Improving the overall conditions of shellfish habitat and increasing shellfish populations through various enhancement and restoration programs is a focus of the MFA and provides a net benefit to the ecology of New Jersey's estuarine waters.

Collection of Shell

MFA staff currently picks up shell on a weekly basis from participating venues. The shell is then transported back to the Nacote Creek Research Station for storage and curing. Curing is the practice of allowing the shell to sit for a minimum of six months prior to placing it back in the water to rid it of any potential diseases that can be harmful to native oyster populations (not human consumers).

The collected shell is then used in oyster reef enhancement efforts along New Jersey's coastline with an initial focus on the Mullica River oyster reefs, home to one of the last self-sustaining oyster populations on the Atlantic coast. These oyster reefs are very resilient, having survived freshwater flooding events, disease outbreaks and the impacts of climate change, making them the perfect candidate to enhance and expand upon.

Truck collecting shells     Truck emptying load of shells

Shell Planting

In June and July of 2021, shell was loaded at the Nacote Creek Research Station onto a barge and transported to the Mullica River oyster reefs.

Mullica River Shell Planting     Mullica River Shell Planting     Mullica River Shell Planting

MFA staff used high-pressured water cannons to deploy the shell back onto the reefs. In total, staff deployed 70 tons of shell: 55 tons of recycled oyster and clam shell and 15 tons of surf clam shell from additional shell sources onto these reefs.

The site will be monitored on a regular basis. MFA has a long-standing survey (from the 1950s) of the Mullica River oyster reefs that provides a well-established data set to evaluate pre- and post-planting conditions.

Mullica River Shell Planting
Drone arial footage of the Mullica River.


NJDEP Marine Fisheries Administrationís Shell Recycling Program and Shell Plant Video


Shell Recycling Partners
Stockton University Marine Field Station Jetty Rock Foundation Rutgers Cooperative Extension

Participating Venues

Shell Recycling Participating Venues
Knife & Fork Inn Dock's Oyster House Hard Rock Hotel and Casino

Reports & Publications

Annual Collection Report (Collection year 2020) (pdf)

Shell Recycling Article: Atlantic City (pdf)

News Releases

Dinersí discarded shells help establish new oyster colonies. (

For more information, please contact NJ Shell Recycling Coordinator Scott Stueber at or 609-748-2020.

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Department of Environmental Protection
P.O. Box 402
Trenton, NJ 08625-0402

Last Updated: July 20, 2021