Throughout South Carolina’s Low Country, the oyster roast is a staple within a deep and rich culinary culture. But Palmetto State shellfish lovers may not know that their state needs their help recovering oyster shells. Because the vast majority of harvested shells are not recycled, South Carolina must buy oyster shells from other states to replenish its own reefs, which are critical habitat for the species and important features of healthy coastal ecosystems.
Oyster reefs help protect shorelines, filter water, and provide habitat for both their primary residents and a range of other wildlife. Sadly, U.S. native oyster populations have declined to a fraction of their historic levels because of over harvesting, pollution, and habitat destruction. But rebuilding shellfish habitats is one of the most promising opportunities for reviving coastal ecosystems, and states’ investments in oyster reef restoration have yielded results in recent years.
To encourage shell recycling, South Carolina’s Department of Natural Resources, with assistance from Pew, The Outside Foundation, and the Coastal Conservation League, just released three videos online. The first, “The Importance of the Oyster,” is about the many benefits these bivalves offer to South Carolinians, including protection from storms, habitat for wildlife, cleaner water, and sustainable, local seafood.
The second, “From Restaurant to Shoreline,” features two restaurant owners explaining why they participate in the state’s shell recycling program.
And the third, “How You Can Help South Carolina Oysters,” shows how recycled shells contribute to healthy reefs and oyster populations.
With more than 30 oyster recycling stations throughout the state, getting shells back in the water is easy for South Carolinians, especially those near the coast. Consumers and seafood businesses just drop off the empty shells or, if the quantity is big enough, the state’s Department of Natural Resources (DNR) arranges for pick up. DNR also ensures all shells are free of diseases that can spread among oysters before the shells are returned to the water to replenish reefs, both those that are actively harvested and no-take areas.
Simply putting a shell out in most South Carolina reef locations will almost inevitably lead to baby oysters settling on it, because the state’s water is already full of these free-floating larvae. But the window for them to settle onto a hard surface that will allow them to grow is brief: Larvae that sink into soft sediment or sand can’t survive because they must pump water through their gills to feed. And simply tossing oyster shells onto the beach or in a creek, even with the best intentions, won’t help because they will likely be buried. Shells that become part of reefs, on the other hand, are swept clean by the micro-currents that swirl around the structure.
By taking a quick trip to the nearest shell recycling station or supporting a restaurant that recycles shells, we as consumers all have an opportunity to help build the thriving oyster reefs that can provide so many ecosystem and economic benefits to South Carolina.
Joseph Gordon is a project director and Lora Clarke is an officer with The Pew Charitable Trusts’ campaign to protect marine life on the U.S. East Coast. Clarke is based in South Carolina.