DNR’s Oyster Restoration and Enhancement Program

Volunteers form a “bag brigade” to move shell bags to the shore
Volunteers form a “bag brigade” to move shell bags to the shore. Photo from the South Carolina Department of Natural Resources.

by Nancy Hadley

Good news!  You can help restore oysters. The South Carolina Department of Natural Resources (DNR) welcomes public participation in this important effort through the South Carolina Oyster Restoration and Enhancement Program.

SCORE is a community-based habitat restoration program which allows volunteers to work alongside DNR biologists to create oyster and saltmarsh habitat.

Opportunities are available almost year round.  DNR biologists work with school groups, environmental groups, neighborhood associations, fishing clubs and any interested member of the public.

Current volunteer opportunities are posted on the project calendar which can be found through their website http://score.dnr.sc.gov.  Look for the calendar link.

Juvenile oysters attached to a recently planted shell.
Juvenile oysters attached to a recently planted shell. Photo from the South Carolina Department of Natural Resources.

Since its beginning in 2001, the SCORE program has hosted more than 36,000 volunteers, bagged more than 1,800 tons of recycled oyster shells, and constructed reefs at more than 100 sites along the coast.

Dedicated SCORE biologists take hands-on lessons into local schools, man booths at environmental fairs, and host field trips by school groups – more than 40 last year alone.  SCORE reefs serve as living classrooms and research platforms.

How it works

The core of the program is construction of oyster reefs using recycled shells which have been placed in mesh bags to form reef building blocks.  Each finished bag weighs 25 to 35 pounds.  One hundred bags laid out on the shoreline form the basic reef.

Volunteers fill the shell bags starting in late October and continuing through the winter. Filled bags are stacked on pallets until needed. Beginning in March, the bags are used to build oyster reefs.  Volunteers transfer the bags to the chosen shoreline using a “bag brigade”.

Each reef contains more than a ton of shell but many hands make light work.  Reef building continues through July and by the end of the reef building season, there will be new oyster habitat from Murrells Inlet to Hilton Head.

3 month old reef at Palmetto Islands County Park
3 month old reef at Palmetto Islands County Park. Photo from the South Carolina Department of Natural Resources.
If you build it they will come

Within days of placing shell bags on the shoreline, oyster larvae find the new habitat and start the process of building a living habitat.  By the end of the summer, the bags will be covered with 1 inch oysters and will be home to mud crabs, mussels, and other small critters.

DNR estimates that within a year each 100-bag reef will become home to 24,000 oysters, 4,300 crabs, and 7,500 mussels.  They found this out by laborious sampling, counting and measuring.  Each year more oysters will settle on the reef and the habitat will grow.  We can only imagine how many fish this living habitat will feed.

SCORE volunteers often contribute only one or two hours but they gain a vested interest in the environment.  They will never look at oyster reefs the same again! They will watch their boat wakes. They will recycle their shell. They will think and act more responsibly. At least that is our hope.

Up next: Marsh restoration and the Seeds to Shoreline program

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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One thought on “DNR’s Oyster Restoration and Enhancement Program

  1. Nancy – you are a gem. Thank you so much for this series about oyster habitat. I don’t think you’re crazy to devote 30+ years to oysters. We all love them but what do we really know about them? This series is interesting – please consider doing more.

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