Look at those baby oysters go!

DNR operates Shell Recycling Stations where the public may drop off clean shell to be used for reef replenishment.
DNR operates Shell Recycling Stations where the public may drop off clean shell to be used for reef replenishment.

by Nancy Hadley

The very simple solution to keeping our oyster reefs healthy is to replace the habitat that we remove when we harvest.  In other words, shells need to go back on the reef.

Leave it to the experts!

But hold on, the Department of Natural Resources (DNR) does not want every Lowcountry resident putting out oyster shells.  There are a number of caveats including:

·        All trash must be removed from the shell (think oyster knives, paper towels, beer cans)

·        Shell should be dried on high land for 6 months before being replanted (particularly important if the oysters were not local)

·        Shell should only be replanted in the late spring and summer (this is when the baby oysters need it)

·        Shell should be placed at the right tidal height and on the right bottom type (don’t attract baby oysters to a poor location)

·        Shell should not cover living oysters but should be near living oysters (increase the existing reef)

DNR plants recycled shells on public harvesting grounds each summer. It takes 10,000 bushels or more to restore an acre of shellfish beds.
DNR plants recycled shells on public harvesting grounds each summer. It takes 10,000 bushels or more to restore an acre of shellfish beds.

·        Shell should be placed on shorelines with the proper slope (so it isn’t washed away by boat wakes)

In fact, planting oyster shells should be left to the experts.  So rather than plant your own shells, consider returning them to DNR so they can do it.

After the oyster roast

That is the message of DNR’s shell recycling program, started 17 years ago.  The shell recycling program collects shells from all along the coast and even some inland locations.  The program relies on public participation.

DNR cannot go to every back yard oyster roast to pick up the leftover shell.  So we have established shell dropoff sites where coastal residents can bring their shells.

On James Island, shells can be left at the dropoff center at Sol Legare Boat Landing or at Fort Johnson Marine Center.  DNR collects the shells and transfers them to a quarantine area where they are dried for at least 6 months.

Dozens of baby oysters have attached to this recently planted shell.
Dozens of baby oysters have attached to this recently planted shell.

In the summer months the dried shell is returned to public harvesting areas where it will provide habitat for another generation of oysters.  DNR owns a barge which is used to plant areas near Charleston.

Private contractors are hired to do the planting in other parts of the coast.   Shell is loaded onto the barge and transported to the chosen planting area where it is blown off at high tide using a high-pressure water pump.

Within days (literally) baby oysters find the newly planted shell and attach. Although the shell and attached oysters provide habitat benefits almost immediately it will take several years for the new reef to become fully functional.

DNR typically plants 40,000 to 60,000 bushels of shells on public harvest areas each year.  Unfortunately, the shell recycling program doesn’t produce this much shell.  This year the program generated about 30,000 bushels of shell. The rest of the shell needed to restore the beds must be purchased, and it isn’t cheap.

DNR planted recycled shells on this shoreline to create a new oyster reef which can provide ecological benefits and harvestable oysters for many years.

Here is where you come in!  About 100,000 bushels of local oysters and an equal quantity of imported oysters are sold in South Carolina each year. 200,000 bushels, give or take.

DNR uses a trailer with mechanical lift to pick up shell from restaurants. The blue barrels are provided by DNR.
DNR uses a trailer with mechanical lift to pick up shell from restaurants. The blue barrels are provided by DNR.

But the shell recycling program only recaptures 30,000 bushels. Less than 20% of the available shell comes back!  Less than 30% of what was harvested.

This is not sustainable.  We need to replant as much as we harvest but how can we do that if we don’t have the shell!

So when you have a backyard oyster roast with one or two bushels of oysters, don’t think to yourself that its only two bushels and DNR won’t miss them.  DNR needs that shell!

And when you eat at local restaurants, please inquire whether they recycle their shell with DNR.  DNR runs a shell pickup program for restaurants in the Charleston area.  And it’s free!  It does however require a little effort on the part of the restaurant and unfortunately not all restaurants are willing to make this effort.

Let’s not wait until the oysters are all gone! Help DNR be pro-active in managing our oyster reefs sustainably.

By the way, I forgot to mention that the shell recycling and planting program is paid for by revenues from Saltwater Fishing Licenses.

Read Part 1,  Mystery of the Spitting Oysters.

Read Part 2, Why are the Oyster Reefs in Trouble?

To be continued…

Nancy Hadley is a marine biologist with the SC Department of Natural Resources where she heads up the Shellfish Management Program. 

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