In a pilot program aiming to reinforce the state’s ailing natural oyster reefs, The Hangout Oyster Cook-Off has partnered with the Alabama Department of Conservation and Natural Resources to recycle all oyster shells discarded at this weekend’s culinary event for use in future oyster incubation projects.

Prior to this year, all of the oyster shells from the Cook-Off (and currently all the shells from restaurants around Alabama serving oysters on the half shell or otherwise shucking oysters) have just been thrown away and gone to the landfill.

“Alabama is already the largest processor of oysters in the country, so we have a lot of shell and have used some it for reef restoration, putting it back in the water,” explained Chris Blankenship, director of the ADCNR Marine Resources Division. “They may be harvested in Texas, Florida, Mississippi and Louisiana, but they are all processed in Bon Secour or Bayou La Batre.”

Oyster larvae, known as “spat,” cannot survive without a hard surface on which to settle. Their preferred structure is oyster shells, according to Chandra C. Wright, nature tourism specialist with the Mississippi-Alabama Sea Grant Consortium and Gulf Shores & Orange Beach Tourism, but they will use other things if shell isn’t available.

“In addition to their popularity as a food item and huge economic contributor to our economy, oysters are excellent water filterers and are tremendously beneficial to improving water quality,” Wright noted. “So even if we aren’t harvesting oysters for consumption, we need them in our bays and estuaries for their water quality benefits. Oyster reefs also provide beneficial habitat to many other marine creatures — shrimp, crabs, inshore fish and offshore juvenile fish.”

Blankenship said the state has previously recycled shell from processors for use in shoreline and reef restoration projects in the past, but The Hangout Oyster Cook-Off is the first — and hopefully not the last — partnership the department is forming with a restaurant or culinary event.

Reportedly, Chef Chris Sherrill’s Flora-Bama Yacht Club Oyster Cook-Off team started an experiment last year, filling a 50-gallon container with recycled shells.

“Last year [the total event] used about 40,000 pounds of oysters, so it produced about 30,000 pounds of shell,” Blankenship said. “Alternately, they’d end up in a landfill, so we thought, ‘why don’t we clean them up and put them back in the water?’”

Blankenship, who also is an ambassador of Alabama Gulf Seafood marketing campaign, a Cook-Off sponsor, said the state currently doesn’t have a program to recycle oyster shells from local restaurants but is hoping the pilot program will kick-start interest.

The city of Gulf Shores is assisting with containers and logistics in the recycling effort. Attendees are asked to put shells only — no plates, napkins or trash — in designated containers around the Cook-Off site. Afterward, the shells will be taken to state lands where they can “season,” essentially be left outside for about six months for all the bacteria to be killed off before they get put back out into the water.

Alabama has about 3,000 acres of natural oyster reef, Blankenship said, with a goal of harvesting 500,000 sacks per year.

“As they’re placed it doesn’t take long for new spat grow on those shells,” he said. “And the larger the reefs are the more resilient they tend to be. In about 18 months to two years, each shell should produce at least one new oyster.”

The Alabama Gulf Seafood initiative was initially created with BP funds after the 2010 oil spill. This is the second year it has been fully funded by the state.

In a similar program, the Cook-Off also is benefiting from a CAN’d Aid Foundation Awards Recycling Grant to collect and reuse aluminum cans and plastic bottles produced at the event. With funds provided through Oskar Blues Brewery’s “Do-Goodery” Charity, the CAN’d Aid Foundation awarded event organizers a Crush It Crusade recycling grant through its “Love Yur Mama” program area, which focuses on sustainability and environmental issues.

The funds will allow for 20 recycling tents to be placed throughout festival grounds, giving guests ample opportunity to responsibly deposit cans, bottles and other recyclable waste. This grant also provides the means for festival staff to undergo waste diversion and recycling training.

The foundation is a 501(c)(3) public charity closely aligned with Oskar Blues Brewery, a new festival partner. Another benefit of the grant is that The Hangout will use the recycling stations at community events throughout the year, creating a long-lasting community resource to promote zero-waste and environmentally responsible events. Learn more and purchase tickets at www.hangoutcookoff.com.