By Sean Bath
“T’was a brave person indeed, who first ate an oyster.” – Mark Twain
Let me confess right off that I have yet to try eating oysters. The thought intimidates me and consequently, I never cared much about them. They were just something else from the sea. However, after researching the place of oysters in our ecosystem, I can honestly say I have grown a fondness for these slimy mollusks; and I’m also honestly concerned about their survival.
The Significance of Oysters in the Ecosystem
Oysters are invertebrate marine creatures that attach to existing oyster shells during their biological development. The collective shells form oyster reefs on the shores of estuaries and tidal creeks, and these reefs are currently in danger. Runoff from agriculture and development can cause a buildup of fecal coliform which eventually contaminates the oysters. Changing water patterns from local boat traffic or dams upstream can shift the South Carolina oyster’s native intertidal zone and erode marsh altogether. This isn’t just a local problem. 85% of the world’s oyster reefs have been destroyed due to development, disease, and/or overharvesting.
It doesn’t have to be all doom and gloom, however. In fact, South Carolina oysters are privileged in many respects. They seem to have some limited immunity to the disease that devastated the Chesapeake Bay oyster supply, and as citizens, we can control overharvesting and development practices. Oysters are a valuable renewable resource. They are integral to the Lowcountry environment and are in high demand by locals and visitors alike.
Besides the fact that they make a great winter meal, the ecological role of the oyster is incredibly important. They are a cornerstone species. A single oyster can filter more than a gallon of water per hour and by doing so, they are not only constantly improving the quality of the water, they are depositing nutrients that are vital to other marine life. They are a food source to some and a habitat to others. At least 40 species of fish are directly associated with oyster beds, and predators are drawn to the beds as hunting grounds.They also protect against the erosion of our beautiful marsh land. Reefs block the energy transferred from boats and allow for the build-up of sediment.
The History of South Carolina’s Oysters
Oysters also have a historic cultural and economic significance to South Carolina. Because oysters are readily available on the coast, they have been frequently used for a variety of purposes throughout time. The tip of the Charleston peninsula was originally called “Oyster Point” by colonists due to the multitude of oysters. Based on the discovery of large deposits of used oyster shells, it is evident that they have been a part of the Lowcountry diet since Native Americans walked the sea islands. Oysters have been (and often still are) used in a primitive concrete mixture to construct buildings. Oyster shell lime was used as fertilizer on Lowcountry plantations, and the ground shells are often added to chicken feed.
Public and private oyster roasts have been a community tradition since the early 19th century. Despite being a delicacy, oysters were shared by all classes of society. In the past, oysters were often a vital food subsidy for lower income families. Even today, anyone with a boat can pick oysters from open, public beds.
At its peak, the commercial oyster industry in South Carolina produced globally-recognized brands. During its heyday, it was a vital source of jobs for the state. The industry, in fact had an over-reliance on labor. Picking oysters by hand is tedious and dependent on the tide. Before motorboats, groups of men would usually spend several days on the water before returning to the cannery with the harvest. Because oyster picking is so labor-intensive, production numbers declined sharply during the World Wars. The industry barely survived before being subjected to an improved, and diversifying, economy which provided more desirable jobs with higher pay and better benefits. Labor laws and welfare also decreased the profit margin while Korean oysters, picked with cheaper labor, flooded the market.
Producers needed to adapt. They needed to create a capital-intensive industry to thrive in the new economy. In the 1970s, Clemson University did developedoyster-harvesting machine to wean the industry off of its labor reliance, but the equipment was regarded as too expensive and the industry ultimately failed. One by one, South Carolina canneries closed down.
When canneries were operating, used shells would accumulate in one place to be recycled. If they were not recycled, the beds would decline dramatically. Oysters attach and grow on older oyster shells in their larvae form (“spat”). If previously harvested shells are not placed in the intertidal zone, the oyster spat will have a difficult time finding a proper home, and they’re likely to die out. Oyster reefs have been declining since the close of the canneries in the 1970s.
Protecting our Oysters
The S.C. Department of Natural Resources (DNR) reports that up to half of all oysters sold today end up in restaurants. Although just as reliant on a continuing supply of oysters, restaurants are at least a level removed in the production process compared to canneries. The cost of transporting shell to recycling centers is left to the restaurants or the private citizens that purchase oysters. Oyster shells can be found in many places, but not often where they should be: in the creeks, building new beds. DNR predicts that approximately 150,000 bushels of shell are harvested annually while only 70,000 bushels are replanted. This is mathematically unsustainable, and something needs to be done to change the status quo. DNR is on a tight budget and does not have the personnel to work on oyster restoration everywhere in the state. As a result, there is a large reliance on civic volunteerism.
What can we do as citizens? The South Carolina Oyster Restoration and Enhancement (SCORE; http://score.dnr.sc.gov/) program is constantly taking volunteers to help build oyster reefs, to monitor their health and quality, to educate, and to recycle shell. I have personally participated in the building of an oyster bed. During my visit, volunteers formed a chain-gang to load bags of shell onto a boat, drop the bags in the intertidal zone at high tide, and arrange them at low tide. This experience was a feel-good exercise that I would definitely repeat.
Oysters deserve a brighter spotlight on the public stage. The state’s current limited arrangements for the preservation and restoration of oysters are not set in stone. Any new legislation must answer, “Who does this change benefit? Is it fair? Does it protect existing resources? Does it unduly burden any group?” This need not come with tax increases. For example, SCORE has suggested that tax credits can be distributed for shell donations. Broad education is also important. If South Carolina’s citizens – new and old – recognize the ecological, cultural, economic, and historical importance of oysters, they will rise to the challenge.
So the next time you have an oyster, think about the fate of its shell and how you can help preserve our local oyster beds through recycling. If you’re at a restaurant, ask them what they do with the shell. Even asking shows there is interest! In the meantime, perhaps I’ll summon up the courage to try one.