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.