At first glance, oysters may not appear to be the most exciting wildlife you can see in the Lowcountry.
They don’t move, swim or bite. Their sharp shells make them difficult to get close to or to handle. However, these unassuming creatures are absolutely vital to the health and prosperity of the saltmarsh ecosystem.
Oysters are a key protein in traditional local cuisine and have provided food for local residents since the days when Native Americans paddled their canoes through our waterways. Oysters also serve as a natural filtration system for creeks and rivers; they suck water through their bodies and remove microscopic bits of food and pollutants in the process. In addition, the thick beds of oysters that line our rivers and creeks provide an important barrier to coastal erosion.
However, oysters are uniquely vulnerable to changes in the aquatic environment. Freshwater run-off and heavy rains change the salinity of the water, which can cause oysters to die. Overharvesting and pollution have also conspired to threaten the health of oyster stocks.
One of the key reasons that oysters cannot bounce back from these factors is due to their reproductive cycle. They begin their lives as microscopic organisms searching for a non-moving substrate on which to attach and live the remainder of their days. The locations they prefer include existing oyster beds, where an abundance of calcium in the water facilitates the growth of their shell.
One way we can help restore local oyster populations is by providing adequate attachment sites for the tiny oysters to begin their lives. In collaboration with the South Carolina Department of Natural Resources (SCDNR), the Outside Foundation recently embarked on a new program to do just that.
The Oyster Recycling and Reef Build Initiative (ORRBI) aims to create oyster reef sites by collecting oyster shells from residents and restaurants and putting them back into the water to act as attachment points for oysters.
Today, less than one third of oysters harvested from South Carolina waters ever have their shells returned to the ecosystem. As such, the first priority for ORBBI is to provide convenient oyster shell drop-off sites for local residents and to provide pick-up of oyster shells from local restaurants. The first drop-off site on Hilton Head has been established at The Coastal Discovery Museum, and an additional site is planned to open at the beginning of 2018.
While you may think you can just return the oyster shells to the waterways, it is important to recycle them through SCDNR sites so that the shells can be treated for contamination from bacteria and other genetic strains of oysters.
The South Carolina Department of Natural Resources periodically collects the shells from recycling sites and treats them over a six-month period. A series of volunteer events will be conducted to bag these oysters in specially designed sacks. These bags will then be deposited into selected sites with particular emphasis on oyster habitat restoration, where new tiny oysters can attach and begin to grow. The primary focus of the Oyster Recycling and Reef Build Initiative will be providing such habitats in Broad Creek.
The Oyster Recycling and Reef Build Initiative is made possible through a grant from Patagonia clothing, which will provide materials to build collection sites, help pick up oyster shells from local restaurants and support bagging events.
By Jessie Renew, Outside Hilton Head
For more than 30 years, Outside Hilton Head has provided personalized adventures for all ages, from kayak, fishing, nature and dolphin tours to kids’ camps, history excursions, family outings and stand-up paddle boarding. (843) 686-6996 or outsidehiltonhead.com.