A half-mile section of the May River closed to shellfishing since 2009 has been reopened for the 2012-13 season.
The S.C. Department of Health and Environmental Control reopened the area between Gascoigne Bluff and Linden Plantation Road after water quality tests proved shellfish caught in that area is safe to eat.
"This portion of the May River was downgraded from 'approved' to 'restricted' status back in 2009," said Jim Beasley, an agency spokesman. "However, it is being upgraded to 'approved' status for shellfish harvesting based on water quality sample results that showed (it) is good enough for ... shellfish harvesting."
Town officials hailed the announcement as progress in their multi-year effort to improve water quality in the May River. But at the same time, they warned against reading too much into the announcement, largely because it's not clear if that section was ever impaired.
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When the state closed part of the river to shellfishing in 2009, it shut down any areas lacking data to prove the water was sufficiently clean. Since then, DHEC installed new testing stations, providing more precise data for smaller subsections of river.
Data from these new stations cleared the Gascoigne Bluff and Linden Plantation Road area.
"It means some measure of progress and hopefully validates some of the efforts we have," town manager Anthony Barrett said. "But again, any of us would be hard pressed to comment on the health of the entire river or any given section."
The town believes runoff from developments built over the past decade are largely responsible for polluting the May and its headwaters. Over the past several years, the town has spent millions, developed detailed plans and passed new regulations in an attempt to restore the river.
Whatever the reason, Larry Toomer, owner of Bluffton Oyster Co., is happy the new oyster beds are open.
"It gives us about a half mile or so more area to work, which is not the greatest thing in the world, but we are grateful to have anything more than what we had," he said Thursday.
Shellfishing season in South Carolina opens Oct. 1, but the oyster company receives a special permit most years to start harvesting Sept. 1. The season ends May 15.
"It gives us a chance to get started slow and get everybody ... starting to make a little money instead of sitting back waiting with their hands tied till Oct. 1," Toomer said. "It's like a little spring training, if you will."
"So far, everything looks good," he added. "Last year was good, and we are hoping for the same this year."
Meanwhile, it's unlikely new shellfishing grounds will open before the season closes, said Kim Jones, town water quality program manager.
"Based upon the data from DHEC, the town does not anticipate another section to open for this shellfish harvesting season," she said.