There aren’t many things more Lowcountry than a good, old-fashioned oyster roast. Each little mollusk tastes like a quintessential bit of pure ocean, something valued by locals and visitors alike.
However, our little slice of shoreline would be remiss to ignore the consequences associated with too much of a good thing, and right now, the oyster needs the community’s help.
In November 2017, the Outside Foundation started its Oyster Recycling and Reef Build Initiative (ORRBI), a community-driven program aimed at reestablishing the local oyster beds impacted by human harvesting.
In May this year, the Foundation completed its inaugural season, collecting more than 11 tons of oyster shells from the community.
These shells will be used to build a new oyster reef off Page Island, near Daufuskie. Construction is planned to begin July 29.
This new initiative was created through grant money received from the Patagonia Environmental Grants program, which awards nonprofit, community-oriented organizations with the funds necessary to begin projects aimed at strengthening the local environment and ecosystem.
With the grant, ORRBI is attempting to increase South Carolina’s oyster shell recycle rate, which is low enough to force the Department of Natural Resources (DNR) to import shells from out of state.
Jean Fruh, executive director of The Outside Foundation, stressed the importance of the Lowcountry’s oyster population, citing their impressive habits of cleaning our waters and protecting our shores from erosion.
“Our oysters are very powerful filter feeders who are able to very quickly clean up contaminants,” said Fruh. “Oysters provide a habitat for hundreds of species. They are in and of themselves a remarkable ecosystem.”
Oyster beds act as natural breakwaters, sheltering our coasts from erosive tides caused by weather and boat displacement. According to the 2010 U.S. Census, South Carolina sits in the top 10 of total boat ownership and the top three of boat ownership per capita.
These vessels naturally raise our waters, and oyster beds act as a much-needed defense mechanism.
One of the ways ORRBI helps recycle shells is through bagging events. These events invite community members to participate in preparing collected oyster shells for their return to the waters from which they were harvested.
“We have a standardized bagging process,” said Fruh. “Each bag is made a certain size, stacked, and quarantined in Mother Nature for six months. The bacteria eats away the fleshy bits and the sun bakes them. They lose their smell and make for a great foundation.”
The Outside Foundation has been relying on local business support to help promote ORRBI’s recycling endeavors. Coastal Discovery Museum has allowed ORRBI to set up its collection bins, provided by i2 Recycle, on a specially sanctioned piece of property, while a number of restaurants have been training staff to properly recycle shells for reuse.
“The ecological aspect of our restaurants is fairly new and it’s thanks to the Outside Foundation,” said Alan Wolf, director of operations at SERG restaurant group. “This opportunity is a win for both parties and the community in general.”
The Outside Foundation is working in concert with the DNR’s South Carolina Oyster Restoration and Enhancement Program (SCORE), a statewide habitat restoration and monitoring program focused on educating the general public on the importance of oysters and decreasing tax dollars spent on importing out of state shells.
“Oysters are a keystone species in our estuaries,” said Ben Dyar, shell recycling coordinator at the DNR. “Best of all, they’re sustainable, but we’re removing more shells than we’re putting back.”
Public involvement is crucial to ORRBI’s success, though changing people’s ways always remains a daunting task.
“As it stands, we don’t recycle enough,” Dyer said. “It’s extremely important for the public to get involved because the majority of recycled shells comes from them. It’s important to inquire in their restaurants. In order to stay sustainable, we need the public’s help.”
ORRBI’s inaugural season has proven to be a successful start in solving a larger problem and the program looks brightly towards the future of oyster sustainability.
“It’s been an outstanding success,” said Fruh. “The only thing to make it better is when the whole community begins to learn more and engage. We want everyone to know it’s as simple as gathering your shells and depositing them at our sites.”
For more information on dates, times and volunteer opportunities, visit outside foundation.org. To recycle oyster shells, the drop off point is at the Coastal Discovery Museum, 70 Honey Horn Dr., Hilton Head Island.
Sam Posthuma is a freelance writer living in Bluffton.