Todd Janeski, shell recycling, and the heart of oyster culture

Which part of the oyster is the part that makes you feel feelings?

Photo by: Southern Foodways Alliance

Todd Janeski has gone on several interviews and described the program he began–Virginia Oyster Shell Recycling Program–but he usually sticks to the facts. 

  1. Putting back into the ocean the oyster shells restaurants would normally throw away helps rebuild oyster populations, which have been drastically reduced for various reasons in the last 100 years.
  2. Oyster populations are not only useful for tastiness, they are useful because they are filter feeders and improve our water quality, and the reefs they build add an underwater wall of protection to shoreline areas, protecting them from erosion.
  3. Restaurants and retailers collect shells, volunteers pick them up, shells go back to the ocean.

He’s been doing the press circuit for the last few weeks, promoting the Shell-Raiser’s Shindig this Sunday, which raises funds for the program via tickets to a dinner made by the #RVAdine elite (including Walter Bundy, Joe Sparatta, and Owen Lane). The meal will feature the usual impressive local beer, wine, and cider list, as well as the unusual combination of oysters from Virginia’s seven distinct regions. And it’ll all go down on a beautiful fall day at Seven Springs Farm in Manquin.

You may already know all that, and it’s important info, for sure.

But if you get talking to Todd for awhile, he’ll lead you into Level 2: Oyster Shell Boogaloo.

Here on Level 2, oyster shells and the implications of ecological work become greater and greater. Todd gets really animated, and you might start to picture post-apocalyptic visions of shorelines drastically eroded while landfills pile up. It’s a scary thought, but not entirely an exaggeration.

A handy thought to cheer you up: baby oysters are called “spat.”


Level 2

Todd is very surprised and gratified by the rate and intensity at which his little oyster program is growing. He didn’t have a long incubation during which he would have had time to plan and scheme and hire a crack marketing firm to brand it all perfectly. 

He began it in cooperation with the Virginia Green Travel Alliance in 2013. A coastal ecologist by trade and a New Englander at heart, Todd’s veins are filled with sea and river water (depending on the day, of course), and he’d been watching oyster shells go into the waste stream. 

At 16 years old, he was already working with oysters in a research lab, dredging them in a boat, learning how to shuck, and how to do laboratory procedures. The mixture of watching a coastal economy function and learning the science of this strange little animal at the same time made a big impact on young Todd. He would go on to explore both sides of the equation, putting in his time as a raw bar owner, a shucker, an eater, a learner.

The romantic idea of oysters–their ability to oscillate between the most elegant of appetizers to fried sandwich filler–dovetails pretty well with their environmental importance. At the turn of the 20th century, Virginia’s haul was 17 million bushels. Last year, we brought in 500,000. But, listen, that’s a big uptick from 2001, which produced only 23,000 bushels total. Disease and over-harvesting played huge roles in last century’s oyster decline, but the way we treat our coastlines is a crucial co-star.

“We had this post–World War II land change that turned farms into subdivisions and altered how the water landed in the Bay. These suspended solids–that fine silt–covered over oyster beds and buried them,” Todd says. Our water quality decreased and our shorelines eroded, and we kept on keeping on, most of us, without thinking much about it–if at all. With fewer oysters came fewer oyster shells, a commodity once so useless in its abundance that it paved roads and garden paths. Now, coastal areas pay wads of cash for these bumpy, oddly shaped rock-like shells so they can put them back into the ecosystems of bays and rivers, where they belong.

Aquaculture–the farming of fish and shellfish offshore–certainly saved oyster-starved palates, and the shells produced by their success could be what brings back the wild oyster populations. And with them, a richer coastal economy in every sense of the word. 

The pilot program as pitched to VCU’s Rice Center for the VOSRP was supposed to last six months. RVA restaurants Rappahannock, Lemaire, Pearl Raw Bar, and Acacia all agreed to pitch in, saving aside their oyster shells for pickup in big buckets.

Within four months, Todd and his volunteers were picking up so many shells and hauling them around that the program absolutely had to expand. More materials and more funds for transportation–that’s really the bulk of the cost, and the VOSRP relies on grants and donations to pay for those. Just recently, Todd was able to hire a volunteer coordinator who helped him reach the hearts and minds of the younger crowd, an age group that, until the coordinator began helping him, bewildered Todd to no end. He’s not a social media guy, he’s a “sit on the Rappahannock River in a boat and catch something and then excitedly explain it scientifically to his kids” guy.

Every step in the VOSRP’s journey has led to huge spikes in growth, kind of like a reverse line graph of the oyster population since the mid-20th century. Two and a half years later, and Todd’s volunteers are collecting shells in Charlottesville, Hampton and Newport News, Kilmarnock, and of course, all over Richmond. 

Growth is great. Growth is awesome. But rampant growth without a plan is the scary thing. Todd doesn’t want to under-deliver, and he doesn’t want to burn out his partners or his volunteers. He could use more volunteer coordinators and more paid staff in general as well as more buckets, more trucks, more gas money. “I’m trying to manage that so it doesn’t drive me completely insane,” says Todd. 

Considering that participating in the program requires effort (collecting and storing shells, washing out buckets) and does not reap monetary rewards, Todd has to do a shockingly small amount of work to get restaurants on board. An oyster-slinger in Charlottesville took over their space from a former participant and happened to see some of VOSRP’s literature lying around in the office–they’re now regular shell collectors.

To stop your office-cleaning-out process, read a pamphlet, make a phone call, and set up a meeting just so you can do more work? The notion seems so farfetched, but Todd says that it’s a testament to how much the good food folks in Virginia understand that this is a big investment in their community. It’s not just about keeping oyster stew on their menus. After all, they can hit up their aquaculture contacts anytime they want. It’s about understanding that the bay, the rivers, and the coastal farms are essential to our way of life. Those bodies of water are the places they came from, they visit, they care about in some way, and they want the economies around them to succeed.

Todd envisions an again-thriving coast with shuckers, boats, the places that make boats, the places that fix boats, the places that make the tools for the places that fix the boats that the places that make boats make…”There’s a whole intricate web there that’s huge, much more than exists from just growing them in a cage or a bag,” says Todd, who dreams that in 50 years we could rebuild the industry with a lot of hard work.

The commonwealth funds the harvesting of fossilized shell, and federal initiatives are considering clamshells and even concrete as possible hard materials for the baby oysters (spat!) to cling to, as they will after they’ve been swimming around on their own for a few days after birth. VOSRP’s efforts in comparison seem a little diminutive, like spat itself. “I can’t compete with that–they get a million bushels a year, and I get maybe 1,000,” he admits. “But 15 or 20 years from now, we’ve gotten others to look at how we best use shell, how we focus on this limited resource. It’s becoming worth something to people again.” 

His event this Sunday, aside from raising funds, is a way to say thank you to the people who are truly invested. A place full of like minds is often the right reef for free-swimming ideas to latch onto, and Todd takes a moment from stressing about the logistics of the afternoon to remind himself how much he’s looking forward to seeing everyone who’s helped him get the program where it is and the people who care enough to keep it going.

The Shell-Raiser’s Shindig

Even if you’re not a fan of oysters (and that’s acceptable, they aren’t for everyone), you can take part in a truly gorgeous and delectable event this Sunday, October 18th between 2:00 and 6:00 PM at Seven Springs Farm in Manquin. 

It’s not cheap–$100 for a full ticket (lower prices exist for non-drinkers or two individuals buying as a couple). But think of it as a wedding-type event where you don’t have to watch anyone do an awkward first dance. A get-together for the sake of getting together and celebrating how much we all love and respect the unique relationship we as Virginians have with our Tidewater region. The chefs who have been there since the beginning have put together a menu to make any mouth water–she-crab bisque from Lemaire’s Walter Bundy, monkfish ossobucco from Public Seafood and Oyster’s Donnie Glass, Thai fish and crab cakes from Virginia’s Executive Mansion’s Ed Gross, kale gemelli from Heritage and Southbound’s Joe Sparatta, and, of course, the little phlegmy morsels themselves: Shooting Point, Shore Seafood, Ruby Salts, Windmill Point, Pleasure House, W.E. Vellum Seafood, Big Island Aquaculture, Vogt Oyster Company…you’l be able to taste your way around Virginia and understand why Todd and company are committing so much time and effort to preserving the culture.

Make your reservations online.

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Susan Howson

Susan Howson is managing editor for this very website. She writes THE BEST bios.

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