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Oyster recycling, reef building gives back to environment in Horry, Georgetown counties

Netted oyster shells, packed into 400 bundles of two-third bushels, are backed into the Murrells Inlet Boat Landing on a breezy July afternoon.

The water temperature is just right — balanced between 69 and 71 degrees — to bring the shells to a visible, yet remote area of the inlet to set up an oyster reef.

“We like this site because it’s visible,” said Jared Hulteen, wildlife biologist with the S.C. Department of Natural Resources. Hulteen was recently behind several restaurants with deck views of the inlet, flanked by a little more than a dozen volunteers, freshly coated in bug spray, donning gloves and filled with a spirit to do their part for the ecosystem.

Each year, DNR organizes oyster reef building efforts through SCORE, the South Carolina Oyster Restoration and Enhancement Program.

Hulteen gathers the volunteers around for an educational pow-wow before they set up an assembly line to bring the dried out bundles of shells onto a mid-sized boat.

Oysters spawn in about 70-degree weather. Egg and sperm create a spat, or oyster larvae, which floats around for about two or three weeks, Hulteen said. It then searches for a hard surface to land on, which is the recycled shells.

Once they land, they cement onto the oyster shell and begin to grow. As they are growing, the reef draws worms, crabs and other organisms, which then lures fin fish, red drum, flounder and others toward the reef.

Many of the 3,500 annual volunteers are students from grades kindergarten through college.

“Oysters also slow down shoreline erosion,” Hulteen said. “They act as a natural breakwater. On banks without oysters, you’ll see erosion, you’ll see no soft sediment for the most part, you’ll see marsh lines eroding away. Banks with oysters, you’ll see healthy, thriving marshes.”

Through nonprofits like the Coastal Conservation Association, the state is able to build the reefs and continue the oyster cycle.

“We were able to provide some funding to buy the boat to take the shell out to the site,” said Chris Hawley, chairman for the Waccamaw Chapter of the CCA. “The gratitude from us is on both sides, especially from the local committee... To be able to get out and do the dirty work is awesome.”

After the shells are loaded on the boat, they’re shipped, with the volunteers, to a pre-determined location visible to those who are on the mainland for awareness purposes. Boards are placed as a walkway for those lined up to place the shells on the soft ground and piled in a row next to beds that have been created by DNR in the last two years.

With beads of sweat dripping from the volunteers’ heads, their job is complete. Now it’s time for nature to take its course.

“Once you know what these oysters are doing for our environment and for the inlet, the proof is in the pudding,” Hawley said. “You feel good about what you did and your sweat equity is worth something knowing that we’re helping keep the inlet clean, and we’re helping produce an environment for the fish we protect... That, to me, is more or less paying back our area for what it has given us as a resource. It’s contributing back to what we enjoy everyday, so we and our kids and their kids can enjoy it in the future.”

Jason M. Rodriguez: 843-626-0301, @TSN_JRodriguez

Recycling tips for oysters

    Separate shell from trash. Shell mixed with trash is not suitable for recycling. Provide separate containers for shell.

    Keep shell in a porous container to reduce odors.

    Take your shell to the nearest shell recycling center, which can be found at dnr.sc.gov.

    Do not put live oysters in South Carolina waters. If the oysters you purchased were harvested outside of South Carolina, it is illegal to place them in South Carolina waters. Placing imported oysters in SC waters can create public health problems and may harm local oysters or other animals.

    Do not put freshly shucked shell in South Carolina waters. To avoid contamination, shell should be dried for six months.

    Source | S.C. Department of Natural Resources

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