Restaurants throughout the region are helping to restore the Chesapeake Bay's health, one oyster shell at a time.

The Oyster Recovery Partnership began the Shell Recycling Alliance in March with the help of the Baltimore shucking community. Since then, about 50 restaurants, caterers and seafood wholesalers from the District, Maryland and Virginia have been steadily contributing to the program.

The partnership and its affiliate organizations seed the recycled shells with baby oysters, or spat, and then plant them on managed oyster bars throughout the bay and its tributaries.

"In 2010, ORP and its partners processed, cleaned and transported more than 60,000 bushels of shell that was in turn, used to produce and plant more than 450 million baby oysters onto 316 acres back into the bay," Stephan Abel, executive director of the partnership, said in a statement. About 4,000 bushels came directly from local seafood services.

Experts say disease, overharvesting and loss of habitat have contributed to the oyster population in the bay being 1 percent of its historic high levels recorded in the 1880s.

The oyster shells provide a natural, hard bottom that is necessary for spat to grow and thrive. About 10 spat can fit on an average half shell. Once the oyster has grown to a mature size, or about three inches, that oyster can filter about 50 gallons of water a day, improving the water quality and health of the bay.

"It just made sense. It wasn't something they had to sell us on," said Christian Guidi, general manager of the District's Old Ebbitt Grill, which recycles about 14,000 oysters a week.

Old Ebbitt Grill primarily serves boutique oysters from the Pacific Northwest and the Northeast regions of the United States.

"The oyster population in the Chesapeake Bay has gotten to the point where it is really not sustainable for our needs," Guidi said. "There aren't as many options available to us at this point; hence the program. Maybe 10 years from now it will be different."

The Maryland Department of Natural Resources and the National Oceanic Atmospheric Administration are among the many partners that have been working to restore the bay's oyster populations. President Obama included restoration of 20 bay tributaries with native oyster habitats by 2025 in his Executive Order to restore the Chesapeake Bay's watershed.

Shuckers and chefs at the restaurants dump shells into buckets which get rinsed and held until the Oyster Recovery Partnership or a participating company, such as Maryland seafood wholesaler J.J. McDonnell and Co., pick them up. The shells are taken to the University of Maryland Center for Environmental Science Horn Point Laboratory in Cambridge, where they are cleaned, dried and aged in the sun, said Bryan Gomes, who works with the Oyster Recovery Partnership. When that nearly year-long process is finished, the oyster shells are seeded with the larvae in pools to grow before they are planted on reefs, he said.

"It is amazing the difference when the oysters are actually in the water. The water is so much clearer," said Rob Klink, executive chef at Oceanaire in the District, which recycles up to 4,000 shells a week.

Klink said the program is easy for restaurants to handle along with typical operations and it is for a "worthwhile program."

"Anything to clean up the bay is the way to go. It is going to help the rockfish. It is going to help the crabs. It is going to help everything," he said.

George W. McManus III, owner of J.J. McDonnell, agreed and said, "I just think it is a no-brainer. It is cleaning the bay. It is protecting the environment, building the species and adding longevity to the industry."

J.J. McDonnell delivery trucks pick up oyster shells from 20 restaurants and businesses along their delivery route for recycling, a total of about 84,000 shells. McManus said he would ultimately like to collect from all the restaurants along the routes, even if those establishments don't purchase seafood from him "because that is how much we believe in the program."

Claude Ibrahim, general manager of Hank's Oyster Bar in Alexandria, said the restaurant was trying to be part of the program, but the logistics couldn't be worked out until J.J. McDonnell began the pickups.

The eatery's employees are happy to recycle about 3,000 oysters a week, Ibrahim said, and she thinks the restaurant's D.C. location recycles more. The staff will take a field trip in the spring to the hatchery to learn the entire process, she said.

"The ORP logo is on the menu, so people are aware that our oyster shells are getting recycled," Ibrahim said.

Educating the public about the program is "the biggest thing with this program," said Misty Waters, general manager of Federal House restaurant in Annapolis. "The public is not educated about it. The organization has been around for 40 years. Not many people know about this renewable resource.

Waters, whose restaurant recycles about 525 shells per week at peak tourist season, has volunteered to pick up and deliver shells to the hatchery to get a better understanding of the full process, a story she is more than happy to share with customers.

"If they are going to eat oysters, come and eat at the place where we are recycling the shells," Waters said.