Millions of oysters are consumed each year, but the efforts that go into making sure the tasty marine animals can survive and make it into kitchens for steaming or grilling often go unnoticed.
Since the area’s last major oyster cannery, located on Lady’s Island, closed in the mid ’80s, the South Carolina Department of Natural Resources has struggled to maintain enough shells to sustain the state’s oyster habitats.
Aiming to reverse the critical shortage of oyster shells used for rebuilding reefs, DNR’s South Carolina Oyster Restoration and Enhancement Program has built 30 oyster shell drop-off locations statewide and six in Beaufort County.
Contrary to used shells from canneries and shucking houses, those from backyard oyster roasts and by-the-bushel retail sales are not usually returned to the estuary, said Ben Dyar, who oversees the restoration program.
Recycled shell is the best material for rebuilding reefs — but it can be hard to obtain and expensive to purchase. Dyar estimated that DNR replanted 40,000 bushels of oyster shells in 2016, but only 30,000 bushels were from recycling.
To make up for the difference, DNR has been forced to purchase the remaining bushels of oyster shell from out-of-state processors, Dyar said.
“The amount of (oyster shell) suppliers has greatly diminished, making shells scarce to find and more expensive,” Dyar said.
Each bushel costs the DNR between $2 and $5, and since shells have become a commodity, that cost has the potential to go up, according to Dyar.
Oysters, which are often known as nature’s water filters, can clean up to 50 gallons of water each. Oyster reefs also provide erosion control and habitat for a variety of marine animals.
During the summer, oysters spawn and release free-floating larvae, which require a hard surface to land on or they’ll float out to sea or land in a mud bank and die. Old oyster shells contain a high level of calcium and allow new oysters to grow a lot faster than on other surfaces such as a rock or pier.
“Oyster shell is the best material to use,” Dyar said. “It’s the most natural.”
In order to increase oyster habitats on public recreational grounds at a minimum cost to taxpayers, DNR initiated the restoration program to promote oyster shell recycling and community-based restoration.
“Our biggest hurdle is public awareness,” Dyar said. “A lot of people don’t know we replant oyster shells and that they can recycle them.”
Toadfish Outfitters, an oyster knife, fishing gear and apparel company based in Charleston, has committed to contributing a portion of every product sold to oyster reef rebuilding efforts.
“The No. 1 reason for fish mortality is poor water quality,” said Casey Davidson, owner of Toadfish Outfitters. “Since (oysters) are filter feeders, they are the whole center of water quality and keeping it where it needs to be.”
Davidson grew up in Beaufort and said he started his company with the mission of “making a positive impact on the ecosystems I love.”
“(Oyster recycling) is not as sexy as issues like the tagging and releasing of red drum,” Davidson said. “But oysters are the centerpiece of the puzzle. If that goes, so does the whole ecosystem.”
Davidson launched his business in early 2017 and has donated nearly $10,000 to the the DNR’s oyster recycling program.
“It seems like common sense that if you take something from the environment, that you should give it back,” Davidson said. “I think if more people were aware that these shells needed to go back into the environment instead of a landfill, they’d do their part.”
Where to recycle
To find a drop off location near you, visit http://saltwaterfishing.sc.gov/oyster.html.