The oyster population in parts of Beaufort County has been nearly wiped out by a massive die-off, and the area's oyster farmers are feeling the pain, according to environmental officials and fishermen.
It's difficult to say exactly how many oysters have died, but fishermen in Beaufort County are reporting as much as 75 to 90 percent of the oysters they find in the areas they harvest are dead, said Lee Taylor, S.C. Department of Natural Resources commercial shellfish coordinator.
"We don't have official numbers right now because it varies even from one side of the river to another," Taylor said.
It's likely that heavy rain over the summer caused the deaths by inundating the estuaries where oysters grow with fresh water and lowering salinity levels, he said.
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Along the banks of the Broad River, 80 to 90 percent of the oysters are dead, according to Craig Reaves, owner of Sea Eagle Market in Beaufort.
"Everywhere you look it's just dead oysters," he said. "Everything in that area is wiped out."
Reaves has tested salinity levels in the river and gotten results near zero, he said. Where his fishermen once picked 1,000 single oysters in a day, they're finding only about 100 living oysters now, Reaves said.
"It was during the summer that we had so much rain that our salinities got very out of whack," he said. "But I've never seen so much rain that it would affect the oysters."
Technically the state is at normal rain levels, but the rain fell hard enough and in a short enough span to have a lasting effect on salinity levels, Taylor said.
"We haven't done an extensive survey yet, but there's really not a whole lot we can do about it," Taylor said. "We can't increase salinity."
Fisherman Jon Dusenberry picks clusters of oysters near Whale Branch and has seen between 75 and 90 percent of the oysters in the area near the Coosaw River dead. In the past, he's sold his oysters to eight restaurants in Myrtle Beach, but he's had to cut back to supplying just three this year, he said.
"That's the first that's happened to me in this area," he said. "It's kind of wiped us all out right here."
It appears the worst of the deaths are in Reaves and Dusenberry's areas along the Broad and Coosaw rivers, Taylor said. He has also heard from fisherman in one area near Charleston, but that die-off is not as large as in Beaufort County.
Although there is little DNR can do to stop the deaths, Taylor is documenting the event for study.
Of the oysters he has observed so far, Taylor said he's found many with juvenile oysters attached to the inside of the shells, which means the oysters were able to reproduce at least once before they died.
However, it will still take some time for the population to recover, he said.
"It could have a long-term impact up to two or three years, but it's hard to project," Taylor said.
Follow reporter Zach Murdock at twitter.com/IPBG_Zach.