Why we love oysters
Oyster season is back in full swing. According to the Post & Courier, harvesters pick nearly 100,000 bushels across 5,000 acres of Lowcountry oyster beds. These salty morsels of wild flavor are as tasty as they are valuable. As keystone species, oysters provide an array of environmental benefits that bolster the entire ecosystem. Food, filtration, and habitat. A healthy, mature oyster filters 30 to 50 gallons of water each day. Filtration improves water quality, enhancing conditions for all coastal life. Oyster grow in clusters, eventually forming reefs that serve as perfect habitat for juvenile shrimp, blue crabs, and flounder. Mounds of dense shells also buffer wave energy, protecting critical marsh grass and reducing erosion.
The “what” and “why” of oyster season
Why do we only eat local oysters during colder months? According to Peter Bierce, co-owner of Charleston Oyster Farm, DNR limits harvesting to colder months to limit bacterial sicknesses within humans and to keep populations stable. Harvesters leave shellfish alone to grow and thrive through the summer months, when waters are warm and rich with nutrients…and bacteria. With water temperatures dropping, it is time to unpack the flannel and find your oyster knife!
South Carolina residents can purchase an annual salt water fishing license for just $10. An individual with a license can harvest up to two bushels a day. For a less DIY approach, head down to Bowen’s Island Restaurant. Bowen’s employs local families who hand harvest oysters from as close as the other side of the bank. Oystermen pick, clean and store bushels, which are steamed to order on location. You truly can’t find fresher.
Harvesters reintroduce discarded shells back into the salt marsh on an annual basis. Tons of shells are loaded onto barges and shoveled back onto the banks, not far from where they were harvested. This recycled shell material helps expand existing beds and further prevent erosion by providing habitat for oyster larvae. The calcium carbonate (CaCO3) the shells are equally as important. Live oysters grow their protective outer shell by pulling CaCO3 from the water column- making old oyster shell a great source for this compound. By reintroducing empty shells to the environment, we replenish sources of calcium and create structure on which future generations of oysters can colonize and grow.
You may be wondering how you can help with oyster conservation. First, avoid putting trash into oyster bins at the shucking table or recycling center. Restaurant employees, non profit groups like Charleston Waterkeeper, and concerned citizens waste lots of energy and time sorting trash out of shell material. Any plastic plates, wrappers, utensils, bottles, and other debris not sorted out end up polluting our waterways.
Also, remember to discard your oyster shells properly. While traditional shucking houses maintain channels for this process, shell from backyard oyster roasts usually get tossed over the fence, or end up in the landfill. Next time you have friends over for a steamed bushel, visit this website from SCDNR to find your local shell depository.
Oysters have and continue to be a critical building block for our local marshes. Oysters have also served as an important source of food and income for generations of South Carolinians. At Charleston Outdoor Adventures, we take pride in bringing the salt marsh to life. Open all year long, book a boat charter or kayak tour before dinner at Bowen’s Island Restaurant to learn about oysters and much more.