On a windy and cloudy Thursday in Murrells Inlet, roughly 20 gloved volunteers trudged through the inlet’s marshy sediment tossing large bags of oyster shells from boat to shore.
The volunteers were building an oyster reef from recycled shells, which provide a vital foundation for the inlet’s depleted oyster population to breed.
“They provide habitat to 130 different species,” said Department of Natural Resources wildlife biologist Michael Hodges, the project supervisor for the South Carolina Oyster Restoration Enhancement (SCORE) program.
The oysters create a habitat for the type of small fish that attract recreationally and commercially important saltwater species.
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“They also filter water so they’re very important for their water filtration capacity and they also help to stabilize our banks from coastal erosion,” Hodges said.
The restoration program established in 2001 has built over 100 oyster reefs between Hilton Head and Murrells Inlet with about 1,800 tons of oyster shells.
This isn’t the first time the SCORE has worked in Murrells Inlet, and Hodges says the builds have been successful.
“We do monitor our oyster beds for oyster recruitment and population development,” he said. “We do come come back, we take replicate samples … and count and measure all the live oysters. If those reefs do well and have a certain number of oysters on them then we will expand the site and that’s why we’ve been working on this site for he past five years.”
But the effort wouldn’t be possible without volunteers and the oyster-eating public.
The Coastal Conservation Association provided most of the volunteers for the Murrells Inlet project. It’s been involved with the SCORE program since 2009, when it began gathering recycled shells to reduce the amount of out-of-state oysters that the DNR was purchasing, according to Hannah Smith, the assistant director of the CCA in South Carolina.
The CCA is a non-profit recreational angling group that raises funds for advocacy and habitat work within coastal fisheries and has a presence in 19 states.
The conservation association has donated over $80,000 in equipment to the program, Smith said. That includes a dump truck that travels the state to pick up recycled oyster shells, the trailer used to haul the shells to the shore and the boat used to haul the roughly 350 bags of shells into the inlet.
“This is the fifth summer consecutively that we’ve added to this site,” she said. “You can certainly see the progression. It’s kind of cool when you come out and see a reef like this because you can actually see the fruits of your labor. You can see on those original oyster beds where new oysters have grown and you can see little fiddle crabs crawling.”
Smith said that at high tide the reefs provide a prime fishing spot in the inlet.
“Without recycling these oyster shells and putting them back into the creeks, we wouldn’t have what we have today when it comes to recreational fishing in Murrells Inlet,” she said.