Rebuilding of oyster beds under way

Outdoors ColumnistJuly 23, 2009 

The pressure on all the marine species of fish and shellfish that inhabit South Carolina's estuaries is unquestionably at an all-time high.

Fishermen pursue flounder, spotted seatrout, red drum and numerous other species of fish, and harvest blue crabs, shrimp, oysters and clams in the Palmetto State's inlets, bays and sounds as the human population along the coast continues on an upswing.

When the pressure is the greatest, doesn't it make sense to protect and enhance the very foundation of the marine ecosystem found in the estuaries?

That foundation, of course, is the oyster beds, or oyster reefs, which are the bedrock of a multitude of marine species in the food chain from microscopic organisms to fiddler crabs to red drum and trout.

But oyster beds do more than provide critical habitat for the marine ecosystem; they filter the water in a time when runoff of fertilizer and pet waste is out of control and effectively stabilize shorelines to help prevent erosion.

Coastal Conservation Association South Carolina is well aware of the all-important role oyster beds play along the coast. As part of the grassroots organization's Topwater Action Campaign, CCA South Carolina is helping to create and enhance oyster beds in the state's estuaries in a coordinated effort with the South Carolina Department of Natural Resources' Oyster Recycling and Restoration Program.

There already has been an oyster bed enhancement effort in Mount Pleasant this year and the next stop is Murrells Inlet, which is perhaps the busiest estuary per square mile in the state.

Literally boatloads of used oyster shell, mainly gleaned from various large-scale oyster roasts in the Lowcountry, will be strategically placed in Murrells Inlet beginning at 9 a.m. Wednesday with Nance's Creekfront Restaurant serving as the launching point.

Returning the used shell to the inlet is ultra-important because oyster shell is the preferred and natural surface for spat, or oyster larvae, to attach to, creating new oysters and in turn new oyster beds.

The project aims to create new oyster beds and enhance existing ones in areas where they are most needed. In this case, Alston Creek on the south end of Murrells Inlet was chosen to receive the shell.

"The premise behind these projects is to literally create more oyster habitat," said Scott Whitaker, executive director of CCA South Carolina. "We went into Murrells Inlet and picked out locations that would be suitable for these projects. We picked Alston Creek because you can't harvest oysters from there because of water quality, and we wanted to place [the shell] where it would have the most impact and improve water quality.

"Hopefully this will be an annual event or several times a year we will go into Murrells Inlet and create more oyster habitat."

Four hundred bags of oyster shell will be transported to Nance's via trailer and loaded on a pair of 18-foot Duracraft jon boats provided by CCA South Carolina specifically for these projects.

From there, the bags of shell will be unloaded at the desired location in Alston Creek, placed in rows and pinned in place. From there the free-swimming spat will attach to its natural substrate this summer and, voila, a new oyster reef will be in the making.

The local Waccamaw Chapter of CCA South Carolina will be coordinating this oyster shell rendezvous, and chapter chairman Chris Hawley is pumped for the event.

"I'm very proud and excited to have this opportunity for our local habitat," Hawley said. "It's a very rewarding experience to create a reef for more marine wildlife, but when we do it right in our own back yard it is really nice."

Hawley is looking for volunteers CCA members or not to help with the project. For more information, call 843-455-0371 or 803-865-4164.

Contact GREGG HOLSHOUSER at 843-651-9028 or at wholshouser@sc.rr.com.

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