A symbol of islanders’ commitment to sustainability is now on display adjacent to one of the most famous holes in the golf world.
The beginnings of a new oyster reef are visible along the 18th fairway at Harbour Town Golf Links, thanks to a joint effort between The Outside Foundation, The Sea Pines Resort and the South Carolina Department of Natural Resources.
“We began this effort in 2017 thanks to an award from Patagonia’s environmental grants program. This is the 10th oyster reef we’ve constructed in the past five years, but this is the masterpiece so far, the one we’ve really been targeting,” said Dr. Jean Fruh, the executive director of The Outside Foundation. “To show the benefits of a living shoreline in such a visible location, it’s going to educate so many folks as to the importance of these efforts.”
More than 700 bags of oyster shells, each weighing 20 pounds, were transported to the shoreline in mid-June and then put in place at low tide – bags piled four deep and secured with rebar. Several community groups, including members of the Hilton Head Boy Scout Troop 222, helped with the building of bags and laying of the reef.
Living shorelines use nature-based infrastructure, such as recycled oyster shell, to combat both shoreline erosion caused by boat traffic and storms, and the impact of rising sea levels and coastal flooding threats.
The reef will serve as a habitat for larval oysters, a place where they can attach and grow. Those oysters will then help clean the waterways by filtering large amounts of water, so the new reef contributes to the health of our ecosystem while preserving one of the island’s most iconic views.
“The rocks and sea wall at Harbour Town is gray infrastructure and the more we can replace that, the better shepherds we’re being to our environment,” Fruh said. “Creating this living shoreline, it will provide a natural barrier that is far more effective than the rocks and sea walls that can be washed away and are so expensive to replace. These reefs, they will thrive for generations.”
This effort began with a $15,000 grant from Patagonia and what seemed like a crazy idea from Fruh and The Outside Foundation.
“We were told at first this was not possible by the DNR. They thought it would take too much of resources and oversight, and we just said give us the approvals and we will galvanize our volunteer army to make it happen,” Fruh said.
The efforts are a reversal of a devasting natural trend. Over the past 130 years globally, we have lost more than 85% of oyster reefs due to pollution, overharvesting and overdevelopment. Oysters are the state’s fourth highest seafood revenue producer, yet the reefs are the most threatened marine habitat on Earth.
Less than 15% of the state’s oyster shells are recycled. It is a tall task for restaurants: the shells create a stench and attract hordes of flies when left sitting in piles.
The foundation has worked with 15 of the 20 restaurants that regularly serve oysters. A local recycling company, I2 Recycle, picks up the shell buckets and transports them to a quarantined area at Honey Horn Plantation, donated by the Coastal Discovery Museum. Foundation volunteers then scrape the shells clean.
Since the start of the program, more than 100 tons of shells have been diverted from local landfills with the help of more than 1,000 volunteers in the program. An additional 10 tons of shells have been collected from the last three Hilton Head Island Oyster Festivals – enough to cover four football fields.
“We have to thank the restaurants because there’s a cost here, in terms of training staff to save and store the shells – and then the stink and the flies that gather between recycling pickups,” Fruh said. “But the good they are doing for their surrounding environment, we are truly paying it forward and building a future legacy of care here.”
The numbers are staggering. The shells attract larval oysters, giving them a place to grow. A 100-bag recycled shell reef provides an attachment site for 10,000 larval oysters in one year.
As the oysters grow, one three-inch oyster alone can filter more than 50 gallons of water per day.
This new reef currently stands at 700 bags of shells.
These reefs also provide a critical habitat for more than 120 species of marine life, including larval fish, shrimp and crab. The reefs stabilize bottom sediments for crabs and aquatic plants and facilitates the regrowth of Spartina marsh grass.
The reef is placed at a predetermined distance from the edge of the marsh. As the high tide comes in, sediment is carried with it. As the tidal water recedes, this sediment is trapped behind the new reef. Over time, the sediment accumulates to attract new marine life and allow the roots of the Spartina grass to move and grow.
The foundation plans to place signage along the reef at Harbour Town to educate golfers and continue to spread the word about the importance of the reefs.
“To have this happen at Sea Pines is very fitting, as they have been one of the quiet leaders of sustainability and clean industry on this island for years. They run an entire PGA golf tournament without needing a dumpster – that’s how focused they are on sustainability,” Fruh said.
The work at Sea Pines is only part done. Volunteers are working to fill additional oyster bags ahead of the second phase of building the reef on July 27. Another 1,000 bags will be added to the reef on the same day as the foundation’s sixth annual Keep the Broad Creek Clean Festival, an event at Shelter Cove Community Park from 4 to 7 p.m. with family-friendly events, crafts, food vendors and 20 environmental-focused non-profits sharing information on how to get involved as a volunteer.
“It will be a long day, but that’s the day that fit into the DNR’s calendar, so we’re excited to finish what we started here,” Fruh said. “It will be a long day of hauling shell bags and placing them to expand the reef. We welcome more volunteers. We know we’re going to need all the help we can get, and to actually be hands-on in creating such a natural marvel. It’s a memory of a lifetime, that’s for sure. This never gets old for me, knowing the impact these reefs are already making across the Lowcountry.”
There are seven reefs along Hilton Head Island waterways and three along the May River, including two at Palmetto Bluff. Patagonia has ended the grants, so to continue the efforts, the foundation will need to attract more grant money and donations.
“The town, the restaurants, they have all been fantastic partners in the efforts to date. I truly hope we can keep this program going,” Fruh said. “This is a poster child for sustainability. We put the work in for the oysters through these reefs and the oysters do so much work for us in keeping the waterways clean and safe.”
For more information, to donate to the Outside Foundation or to sign up to volunteer, go to outsidefoundation.org.
Tim Wood is a veteran journalist based in Bluffton. Contact him at firstname.lastname@example.org.