When COVID-19 shut down overseas travel a year ago, fisheries consultant Mark Soboil found himself in a bind. Suddenly, many of his contracts with international clients were abruptly paused or terminated. Like many whose livelihoods were unexpectedly rocked by the pandemic, Soboil said he was forced to ask himself: “What can I do?”
After pondering that question, Soboil concluded that Washington state’s stay-at-home order would provide the opportunity to initiate projects he and his wife had long dreamed of. So he threw himself into renovating his Bainbridge Island home using a product he had envisioned incorporating into his landscaping — oyster shells.
Shortly thereafter, Soboil realized he could marry his passion for sustainable ecosystems with an ocean-inspired landscaping business he called Shellscapes. After processing and storing the Olympic Peninsula oyster shells at a facility in Gig Harbor, Soboil then distributes the material to homeowners and landscapers throughout the region for use in residential and commercial projects.
An avid surfer and seagoer raised in the coastal city of Cape Town, South Africa, Soboil said he’s had a longtime interest in the ocean, which led him to pursue a degree in marine biology at the University of Washington. Continuing on to pursue graduate work on the East Coast, Soboil said he fell in love with his wife, Julie, and later, Cape Cod, Massachusetts, where his wife grew up.
The appeal of the New England coastal region had to do with its seamless incorporation of natural materials into its environs. “They use shell on their driveways and on their pathways to walk down to the ocean,” Soboil said. “(My wife and I) just really loved that aesthetic for landscaping.”
After graduating, Soboil’s academic interests took him to New Zealand, where he and his wife remained for more than a decade. There, Soboil earned a doctorate; the couple had two boys (now 12 and 14 years old); and Soboil began a career in fisheries management, working to ensure local fishing companies complied with environmental standards.
Soboil went on to apply his interest in sustainable fisheries to eco-certification. He turned his focus to assisting small-scale fisheries across the Global South to meet the environmental standards that would allow them to sell their seafood to European and North American markets.
The family returned to the Pacific Northwest in 2017 with the ambition of re-creating those driveways and landscapes they’d adored in New England. However, since Puget Sound’s oysters typically are better associated with dining than decor, Soboil found sourcing the shells he needed was a challenge. It wasn’t until he finally got around to working on those pandemic-inspired home renovations that he sought a local supplier for the product. Soboil called a few oyster farms he had relationships with through his work in the fisheries world to see about sourcing shells.
Soboil said Washington’s oyster industry is subject to changing industry trends that have created waste-management dilemmas for local growers. “The issue for them is about the recycling of the shell,” Soboil said. The increased demand for oysters on the half shell by local restaurants over the past few years has changed the growing practices of local oyster farmers.
Farms once collected processed shells in mesh bags and threw them back into the bay. Then, baby oysters settled and grew on the shell conglomerate, and growers harvested the bags and repeated the process. But the change in demand has forced the farms to upgrade their grow technology. As oysters are increasingly grown in land-based hatcheries, farms are unable to return discarded shells to the ocean, as they can disrupt Washington’s sensitive tidal ecosystems. Most have taken to piling used shells into land-based middens.
Leveraging his sustainable ecosystem knowledge, Soboil said to the growers, “Let’s figure out a way to recycle and reuse your shell.” The farms happily obliged. The process is a win-win: Growers get a sustainable waste-management solution, while Soboil recycles the shells into beautiful, durable landscaping material.
Shellscapes might have been born out of pandemic necessity, but Soboil explained that the business also connects him to his coastal roots in Cape Town, where he, as a youth, worked summers with his mother’s landscaping company.
The oyster shell’s inherent properties make it an ideal material for driveways and walking paths. When crushed, the shell’s microparticles flake into a natural binder, known as oyster flour. During installation, the 1-inch shell fragments are compacted into a stable surface. As the shell breaks down, it naturally fills in on itself, but without the ruts and holes that might be expected from gravel or small stone. The result is a hard, compact surface with an off-white, mother-of-pearl color that’s soft enough to walk over barefoot. The final product, Soboil said, is perhaps more comparable to concrete than gravel, but oyster shell is an eco-friendly alternative to both. Unlike many traditional landscaping materials, the shell poses no risk of chemical leeching and is 100 percent organic. It naturally repels common Northwest pests such as slugs, moles, and weeds. It also makes for a fantastic mulch, which local lavender growers have known for decades.
Given the prevalence of oysters on Washington’s coastlines and the popularity of the oyster product on the East Coast, where it is considered a premium product, especially compared to clamshell, Soboil said he is genuinely surprised that oyster shell isn’t more common in Washington’s landscapes. “At the moment, people are still wrapping their head around using the product in the Northwest,” he said.
Landscape architect David Berleth runs a small landscape design firm on Vashon Island and was reintroduced to oyster shell as a landscaping material after receiving a sample from Soboil. Berleth said that despite growing up on the East Coast, where shell is common, “It just wasn’t used out here, despite the fact there are lots of marine environments.”
Berleth, who has clients around the Puget Sound, said he began incorporating the crushed shell into projects and was pleased with the results. “It’s a nice, soft material, rather than having all asphalt, concrete, or paving stone (on a project).” The shell’s natural color can also add brightness on dark winter days or in shady areas. Berleth said the material has impressed his clients. “It’s a local renewable resource, and a subtle reminder of our marine proximity.”
With landscape clients like Berleth, Soboil hopes to introduce Northwesterners to a new way to use a familiar product. “It connects you to the sea,” Soboil said, “and it makes you realize how close we really are.”