Though Walter Zadan recently celebrated his 90th birthday, the Williamsburg resident keeps up a schedule that is unusual for a nonagenarian. Every week he stops by several Williamsburg restaurants to pick up heavy buckets laden with empty oyster shells. He then drives these shells a few miles away to dump into outdoor collection bins.
Zadan is part of a network of volunteers across Virginia that collects these shells for oyster restoration efforts by the Chesapeake Bay Foundation. For Zadan, his routine at the restaurants incorporates the three things needed for a long and happy life.
"The first thing is to eat good food. The second thing is to exercise. The third thing is to stay connected to society, and feel like you are doing something good," Zadan said.
The volunteer job is a great match for someone who has spent decades both working with restaurants and as an environmental advocate. Zadan has lived in Williamsburg since 1998, but he was born in New Jersey and has moved around the East Coast. While in Pittsburgh in the 1960s, he became involved in fighting smog and pollution.
That interest carried over after he arrived in Norfolk in 1987 to work as a culinary teacher. Back then, when contacting seafood suppliers he was surprised at the lack of local fresh fish, crabs, and oysters in a city on the water. "I was shocked by what I was hearing compared to what I had been used to," Zadan said.
Zadan learned about sources of pollution to the Bay and resolved to do something about it.
"I got very concerned about it," he said. "Why should I, as a citizen, be abused by people who dump stuff into the Chesapeake Bay. I support the fishermen. People who work the Bay have a right to earn their living."
Since the early 1990s Zadan has been a member of the Chesapeake Bay Foundation and volunteered with various projects, including public speaking on reducing pollution in waterways. He has worked on oyster shell recycling for about nine years.
The foundation has about 15 oyster shell recycling volunteers in Williamsburg and estimates there are more than 50 shell recycling volunteers in the state, spread out from the Charlottesville area all the way down to the city of Chesapeake.
The shell recycling process is a full cycle. Restaurants save shells after meals to become building blocks for new oyster reefs. Volunteers pick up these shells to deposit in designated oyster shell recycling bins around the state. Zadan normally recovers shells from Berret's Seafood Restaurant and Waypoint Seafood & Grill to drop off at a bin on the campus of William and Mary.
When the bins are full, Zadan and other volunteers help shovel the shells into a truck to be driven to the Chesapeake Bay Foundation's oyster restoration center in Gloucester Point. There the empty shells are cleaned and placed into large tanks with free-swimming baby oyster larvae, called spat. The empty shells make great homes for spat, which must attach to a hard surface in order to grow into oysters. Just one empty shell can become the home for a dozen or more full-grown oysters.
The spat-laden shells are loaded onto a boat, where they are dropped onto protected oyster reefs to boost the wild oyster population. Just last year, the Chesapeake Bay Foundation planted 5 million oysters in the Lafayette River in Norfolk.
Volunteers like Zadan are crucial to every step of the process, from gathering shells from restaurants to planting the baby oysters in rivers and the Bay, said Chesapeake Bay Foundation Oyster Restoration Specialist Heather North. "There is no way we could do this without our volunteers," North said.
"Walter is a real inspiration. At 90, he is showing us all just what is possible." North added that Zadan's long career in the food industry has helped the program work better with restaurants.
For his part, Zadan said that being part of the process gives him hope. "I feel like I'm making a contribution," he said. "It's a good thing both from a moral point of view and because it encourages business activity." He hopes that he can continue to inspire younger generations to work toward a healthier Chesapeake Bay. "Someone who's only 65 may look at me and say 'if a guy who is that age can do it, I can do it too,'" he said.
—Kenny Fletcher, CBF Virginia Communications Coordinator