Our wild oyster population
Oysters are crucial to our estuaries, providing key habitat for many economically important species like shrimp, blue crab, red drum, and flounder. In total, there are about 120 species that rely on oyster reefs! Along with habitat creation, they also protect our shoreline from erosion and flooding by trapping sediment, enhancing the salt marsh, and disseminating wave energy from boat wakes and storms. Not only are oysters important to our waterways because of the habitat they create and the erosion they prevent, but one single adult oyster can filter up to 50 gallons of water a day thereby improving the water quality. The presence of oysters in our waterways is critical to the health of our estuaries and important in ensuring the water is safe for recreational activities.
Oysters are the essence of the Lowcountry, dating back more than 4,000 years ago when archeologists believe indigenous Americans used the shell to create huge mounds, also known as middens, and shell rings for central gatherings, ceremonies, and feasts. For the Gullah Geechee people, the oyster reefs gave them the empowerment to come to an area where they couldn’t go, develop economics, and show their authenticity in the ‘50s and ‘60s (According to Willie Heyward Jr (Halo Quaponda) in the City Paper). Eating oysters, whether it be steamed, raw, or baked, is a Lowcountry cuisine staple and oyster roasts are a celebrated Lowcountry gathering. However, when we take oyster shells out of our waterway to enjoy, only 10% of the oyster shell gets recycled back into our local waterways.
Why does this matter?
Our oysters are substrate limited. This means that our oyster population growth is limited by the amount of oyster shell available in the waterways. Baby oysters, also known as spat, need a hard, shell-like surface to attach to, so they are not smothered by pluff mud. When this lack of recycled shell is combined with larger environmental and water quality changes, development pressures and unsustainable oyster harvesting practices, we begin to understand the reasons we now have a declining wild oyster population in South Carolina.
Doing your part – recycling your shell
Recycling your oyster shell at SCDNR’s drop off locations is important to complete the oyster cycle. SCDNR biologists and volunteers strategically place the recycled shell back into our local waterways to help restore, preserve, and enhance our wild oyster population. We encourage all oyster eating enthusiasts, oyster roasters, and restaurants to recycle their shell, so we can continue to enjoy this Lowcountry resource for future generations.
Have questions? Feel free to reach out to us at 843.972.3484 to see how you can get involved in the process.
Oyster mariculture can take the pressure off of the wild oyster populations while we work to recover them. They still provide the benefits of wild oysters like creating habitat and filtering the water. While these hand-raised bivalves play an important ecological role within our estuaries, they also play an important role in our local economy. Despite the benefits of mariculture, more than half of the oysters found in South Carolina raw bars are sourced from out of state.
The Conservation League actively monitors the oyster mariculture industry on our coast. Recently, homeowners in areas around proposed mariculture operations have expressed concerns about the visual impacts on our coastline, navigability of our tidal creeks, and fishing accessibility. These concerns are valid; however, to date, only modestly-sized operations have been proposed along South Carolina’s coast and the South Carolina Department of Natural Resources, the Office of Coastal Resource Management, and Army Corps of Engineers have worked together to implement appropriate restrictions that eliminate or significantly reduce these risks. The Conservation League frequently comments on these permit applications to ensure these farmers will be responsible water users. We believe the that the South Carolina oyster mariculture industry has the ability to thrive within our waterways – without hindering the local recreational activities and the beautifully pristine views of some of our rivers. We can balance community and nature.
Asking the right questions
When commenting on proposed mariculture operations, we critically assess the application. Below are some of the most important questions the Conservation League asks applicants:
- How big is the operation? To date, the largest application covered approximately 7 acres of salt marsh. The larger the operation, the greater our concerns. In some instances, we have successfully recommended that a mariculture operation’s size be reduced.
- Where is the operation located? Is it in a highly trafficked waterway and what’s the size of the waterway? What type of water users operate in the area? Is there residential development in the area?
- Are the oysters going to be growing in clean waterways? DNR maintains an interactive map showing locations where mariculture is an appropriate water use.
- Is the operation utilizing a local seed source? We would not support non-native oyster mariculture. Fortunately, a local grower is currently providing seed to all operators in the state.
- Does the grower have a storm plan in the event of a hurricane or tropical storm? Typically, growers sink their gear during a storm. This has proven effective for local growers during hurricane Matthew and Irma.
- Has the grower posted a bond? Bonding provides funding that can be used in the event a mariculture operation is abandoned.
- Will the applicant follow best management practices (BMPs)?
We look at mariculture operations in the same way that we assess dock permit applications. Some are more concerning than others and it is always site specific. DNR, OCRM, and the Army Corps have been very conscious of the potential for explosive growth in this industry and have exhibited a commitment to ensuring the industry grows responsibly. If done well, the industry can happily coexist with local residents and water users.
If you have questions about South Carolina’s oysters, we’re happy to answer them! Please feel free to reach out at 843.972.3484.