Be thankful for oysters. In addition to being delicious, the mollusks play a critical role in maintaining our nation’s coastlines. Not only do they filter sediment and other pollutants out of the water, their reefs also serve as a home for crabs, fish and other coastal sea creatures.

For decades, large reefs across the Chesapeake Bay and Virginia coast formed the foundation of a vibrant fishing economy. But in the last several decades, oyster populations have plummeted. According to the Chesapeake Bay Foundation, “as a result of decades of pollution, overharvesting and disease, the Bay’s native oyster population has been estimated at as low as one percent of historic levels.”

The Oyster Recovery Partnership (ORP) has an innovative plan for rebuilding these habitats, and Pittsburgh’s restaurants are the first in Pennsylvania to help.

Here’s how it works:

ORP is a nonprofit working to bring back native oyster populations across Maryland and Virginia. A key part of their work is repurposing used oyster shells from restaurants and using them to serve as the habitat for dozens of microscopic oyster larvae, which are then reintroduced to their natural habitats once they’ve come of age.

That’s where Pittsburgh foodies come in. Last November, our city became ORP’s first partner outside the Chesapeake region, with three local restaurants signing agreements to save their shells for the oyster gardens of Maryland and Northern Virginia. With the help of Sustainable Pittsburgh, six of our leading restaurants eventually joined the cause.

Clearly their customers like oysters. In the last seven months, these six restaurants have saved 19 tons of shells, according to a press release.

“Now that the alliance has really taken hold in the DC-Maryland-Virginia region, we’re seeking to engage other major metropolitan areas in recycling their oyster shells,” said ORP Executive Director Stephan Abel. “Pittsburgh has seen increased support for sustainable food options and eco-friendly practices, making it a natural fit for the program’s expansion.”

The participating restaurants are Eleven, Merchant Oyster Co., Muddy Waters Oyster Bar, Off The Hook, Spirits & Tales at The Oaklander Hotel and the restaurant at St. Clair Country Club.

“It has been a privilege to be able to help connect restaurants with efforts like this — and help transform the industry,” said Sustainable Pittsburgh Executive Director Joylette Portlock. “Pittsburgh is the first city in Pennsylvania to engage in this oyster shell recycling program, which is further demonstration of our region’s restaurants embracing sustainable business practices.”