Oyster lovers, your favorite season of the year is here.
Shellfish season, when oysters — plus clams, mussels and other bivalves — can be legally harvested from South Carolina waters, is open, according to a news release from the S.C. Department of Natural Resources.
The recreational season is expected to remain open through May 15, but shellfish beds may be closed on occasion because of poor water quality after a heavy rain or because of pollution, the news release said.
Here’s what you need to know before you stomp out into the Lowcountry pluff mud looking for your supper.
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Check your maps
Areas marked as state shellfish grounds and public shellfish grounds are OK for recreational harvesters, said Erin Weeks, spokesperson for the department.
She explained that most harvesting areas in South Carolina are easiest to access by boat.
An interactive map on the S.C. Department of Health and Environmental Control website shows areas that are temporarily closed for health reasons. That information also is available by calling 1-800-285-1618.
“Just be aware that anytime there’s major storms, closures can occur,” Weeks said.
Know the laws
The state’s rules say a person is allowed to harvest two U.S. bushels of oysters in any one day.
A five-gallon bucket will hold about a half a bushel of oysters, Weeks said.
“For most people, that’s going to be more than enough for a family meal,” she said.
Harvesting is limited to two calendar days in a seven-day period, and there is a maximum possession of three personal limits per boat or vehicle, according to DNR rules.
It’s illegal to harvest shellfish between a half hour after official sunset and a half hour before official sunrise, the rules say.
Have the right gear
Weeks said rubber boots or thick-soled shoes are a must for safety in oyster beds because the shells are sharp.
Also, oysters should be harvested by hand, so you’ll want to be wearing gloves, she recommended.
It’s handy to have a metal implement, like a screwdriver, Weeks said, so you can harvest singles and leave the rest of the cluster in the shellfish bed to continue growing and providing habitat for other oysters.
This is known as “culling in place,” she said.
“If you see a cluster that’s got one good oyster in it, there’s probably baby oysters growing around it, so we ask people to take a metal implement and break off the little ones,” Weeks said.
She recommended looking for oysters that are intact and are 3 inches or larger.
Safety at home
Once you get home, rinse your oyster catch off with fresh water from a hose, Weeks recommends.
“There’s usually a fair amount of mud involved,” she said.
It’s best to eat them right away, but if you need to store them, the safest way is in the shell in a fridge around 35 degrees Fahrenheit.
“You should throw away any oysters with broken shells or that don’t close when you tap them,” Weeks said.
Recycle your shells
“We strongly encourage folks to recycle the shells,” Weeks said.
Recycled shells are used to rebuild oyster reefs, she explained.
DNR’s website, which includes a section all about recycling oyster shells, says those reefs also provide habitat for fish, shrimp and crabs, as well as protecting shorelines from erosion.
Check online or call (843) 953-9397 to find a recycling location. DNR’s website lists seven locations in Beaufort County.