In the South, especially the humid and semi-tropical Lowcountry, the changing seasons can be a subtle if altogether unnoticeable occurrence. So we‘ve devised other ways to delineate the year, and one of the most celebrated of these annual milestones is the start of oyster season.
For those who are unaware, the oysters along the South Carolina coast are of the tidal variety. This means that they generally inhabitant shallower areas along the coast and in marshes. (If you need an idea of what this looks like, take a paddle around Broad Creek or Pinckney Island, you’ll find oysters everywhere.)
The temperature of shallow water is greatly influenced by air temperature. During the warmer months the water temperature is perfect for bacteria that are potentially harmful if consumed. Oysters, being filter feeders, are consequently too risky to eat in the summer months. The general rule of thumb is that oysters are safe to eat in any month that ends in “R” (plus January and February). That means that by September oysters are on the brain as people all across the Lowcountry gear up for the happiest time of the year.
Most people tend to wait until October by custom, but the South Carolina Department of Resources (SCDNR) ultimately decides when the season begins (FYI: it was October first this year).
Beginning in October the people of the fine state of South Carolina will be consuming mass quantities of oysters as they celebrate the coming of fall. What many people will fail to consider is where do all these oysters come from? Is there a price to pay for our unfettered love of these tasty bivalves? The short answer is yes, but there is a solution.
This is where SCORE comes into the picture. SCORE stands for “South Carolina Oyster Restoration and Enhancement.” It is a volunteer based program run by the South Carolina Department of Natural Resources (SCDNR), and its mission is to build oyster reefs.
Attend any SCORE event and you’ll learn that oyster reefs provide habitat for all sorts of small crabs, fish, snails, and more. Larger fish and birds like to hang around the reefs to eat the smaller critters, and larger fish (read: sharks) come to eat the fish that are loading up on oysters. In all, over 300 species directly or indirectly depend on oyster reefs for life. As SCORE Biologist Jared Hulteen is fond of saying, “A creek without oysters is a creek without life.”
Oyster reefs also provide structure that protects against erosion and improves water quality with their mighty filtering capabilities. According to SCORE Biologist Michael Hodges, “One adult oyster can filter up to two gallons of water per hour,” putting the per oyster filtering capacity at roughly 50 gallons a day. And that’s just one oyster in a reef with hundreds to thousands of oysters. The filtering capacity adds up pretty quickly.
On top of all this, they also taste absolutely delicious and are an important industry for coastal communities. There is not only an ecological imperative but also an economic imperative to protect the humble oyster.
The SCORE team is made up of four hard working oyster warriors: Michael Hodges—Lead Biologist, Jared Hulteen—Biologist, and Tyler Edwards and Trent Austin—both Natural Resource Technicians.
Reefs are built by taking recycled oyster shells, bagging them in large mesh bags, then laying the bags in areas of need. Each reef is comprised of 300 to 600 of these bags laid on the shore and anchored with rebar. Each bag weighs about 30 pounds meaning the SCORE team moves anywhere from 900 to 1,800 pounds of material with each reef they build. Once the reef is built, oyster larvae floating in the water are drawn to the bagged shell by “smell.” They land, begin to grow their shells and an oyster reef is born.
SCORE recruits volunteers to help build hundreds of reefs up and down the coast. For a recent build in Hunting Island , just north of Hilton Head, volunteers formed in two lines facing one another, from the trailer holding the shell bags to the build site. Then the work began.
One by one the shell bags made their way off the mountain of recycled oysters to their final resting place on the shore, snaking back and forth from line to line as they went. Once the bags reached the reef site, a member of the SCORE team put them where they needed to go. The process was surprisingly quick, and after about a half hour of hard work there was a new oyster reef on the shores of Hunting Island.
Volunteers were a bit muddy and sweaty, but smiles were everywhere. The newly laid bags were stark in comparison with the year-old reef they were next to. You would never guess that the established reefs were man made. New oysters usually begin settling into a new reef within about a week, beginning the process of transformation from man-made and bare, to natural and abundant.
As you paddle past oyster beds along Hilton Head’s creeks and coastline , you can enjoy a newfound appreciation for the role they’re playing. Because of the oysters, there are beautiful creeks to explore, birds overhead, and fish leaping from the water. And thanks to SCORE's stewardship, you can celebrate the season by eating hundreds of oysters with friends and family at an oyster roast. [And here's how to have the ultimate Lowcountry Oyster Roast .]
Whether you’re vacationing in the area or you live here, get in touch with SCORE and see how you can help keep the shores lined with oysters. It’s a great way to get dirty in the outdoors and have a truly authentic Lowcountry experience.