Beaufort News

Mile-long portion of Bluffton's May River closed to shellfish harvesting

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Just a year after it reopened to commercial shellfishing, a roughly mile-long stretch of the May River in Bluffton is once again closed.

Increased levels of bacteria led to the S.C. Department of Health and Environmental Control to close harvesting in a portion of the river for the season, DHEC spokesman Jim Beasley said earlier this week.

The season began Oct. 1 and runs until the end of May.

The state closed four miles of the river to shellfishing in 2009 due to rising levels of fecal coliform, a bacteria found in stormwater runoff. That area was reopened September of 2014.

The recent closure of a portion of that four-mile stretch is a step in the wrong direction, some local fishermen say.

"This isn't going to put us out of business, but it certainly doesn't help our bottom line," Bluffton Oyster Company owner Larry Toomer said earlier this week.

"(DHEC has) their protocols that they go by, so we just have to make do," he said. "But it does have an effect on business any time an area was closed. It tightens things up."

DHEC operates 450 monitoring stations across the state's 25 shellfish management areas to measure bacteria levels.

The recently closed section is between DHEC monitoring stations 19-19B and 19-24, which is near Palmetto Bluff.

Kim Jones, Bluffton's director of engineering and public works, said increased rainfall over the past couple of years could have contributed to the increase in bacteria.

In 2011, a drought year, there was 28 inches of rainfall.

In 2014 the rainfall total nearly doubled to 50 inches, she said.

Toomer, who is a member of Bluffton's town council, said the town is "moving in the right direction, but there is more that we want to do" in terms of preserving the river and keeping it open for shellfish harvesting, he said.

He said one way the town can make a dent in the bacteria problem is by ramping up efforts to replace septic tanks with modern sewer systems.

"The more septic tanks we can remove from areas in the (May River) watershed, the better off we will be in the long run," he said. "Rain water is not contaminated; the contaminants come from what the water picks up when it runs off into the river."

Toomer hopes the closed section of river will reopen next year, but "I'm not confident," he said.

Shellfish bed closures

The S.C. Department of Health and Environmental Control has closed much of the state's shellfish beds due to excessive rainfall, the agency said in a weekend press release.

The closure affects all shellfish harvesting from St. Helena Sound, including the Coast River, to the Bull River and north to the North Carolina line. The closure will remain in effect until tests indicate bacteria levels are suitable.

For more information on harvesting areas in Beaufort County, call DHEC's Environmental Quality Control office at 843-846-1030.

Follow reporter Lucas High on Twitter at twitter.com/IPBG_Lucas.

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