Shellfish harvesting will resume this year on a portion of the May River that has been restricted by the state since 2009.
The town of Bluffton announced less than a week before the start of the shellfish season that a stretch about a mile long will reopen for oyster harvesting.
The S.C. Department of Health and Environmental Control determined the river could open for shellfish harvesting after fecal coliform levels dropped below state and federal benchmarks, making the oysters from the beds safe to harvest and eat, DHEC spokeswoman Cassandra Harris said.
In 2009, when four miles of the river were closed to harvesting, DHEC added three monitoring stations between the river's headwaters and Rose Dhu Creek, Harris said. Samples taken at monitoring stations 19B and 19C on the easternmost section of the closed parts of the river have shown a drop in fecal coliform, Harris said.
Measurements at monitoring station 19C have been below the National Shellfish Sanitation Program's 14/43 standard since the station opened in 2009, according to DHEC data. The standard requires the average fecal coliform concentration to be below 14 units per 100 milliliters, and the estimated concentration at 90 percent to be less than 43 units per 100 milliliters.
In 2010, fecal coliform at station 19B was measured at 14 units and 48 units, slightly higher than the 14/43 standard, but dropped to 10.9 units and 40 units by this year, according to DHEC data.
The shellfish season begins Oct. 1 and runs through May 15, unless conditions warrant extending or shortening the season, according to the S.C. Department of Natural Resources.
DHEC had temporarily closed a four-mile section of the river to harvesting in May 2009, and rising fecal coliform levels made the closure permanent the following August. The reopened section is less than a mile long, according to a DHEC map.
Bluffton Oyster Co. owner Larry Toomer said he was "tickled to death" about the reopening, even if it is only a small section.
"It's not a drastic change, but every little thing is an improvement," he said. "We haven't been able to get in there for five years. We're just grateful for it."
Town stormwater management director Kim Jones said she was "cautiously optimistic" about the news. She credited a change in rainfall patterns and a drop in polluted stormwater reaching the river over the past three years for the reopening. Heavy rains typically cause fecal coliform levels to rise, by carrying pollutants into the river.
The town continues to try to prevent pollutants from entering the river, through initiatives to replace and repair septic systems and to link homes to new sewer lines, Jones said.
The town is also using a federal grant to build a stormwater retention pond in New Riverside and upgrade a retention pond in the Pine Ridge neighborhood to curb stormwater headed to the river, Jones said.
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