There are seven oyster shell drop-off points in Beaufort County, including this one at Trask Landing on Sawmill Creek Road in Bluffton. Recycling oyster shells help oyster beds by restoring harvested or damaged grounds, preserves the ones that are thriving, and improves the inshore marine habitat. GWYNETH J. SAUNDERS

The next time you split an oyster shell, you’ll be repeating a scene originating at least 164,000 years ago.

In 2007, anthropologist Curtis Marean of Arizona State University discovered evidence of shellfish dinners and other marine food sources in a cave by the ocean at Pinnacle Point, South Africa.

Since then, shellfish have been harvested around the world and have become a vital part of South Carolina’s economy – and of the Lowcountry’s feasts.

According to the South Carolina Department of Natural Resources, in 2019 oysters were more than 13% of commercial fisheries’ sales, bringing in $3,725,107.

The South Carolina Department of Health and Environmental Control reopened the 2020-2021 season for recreational harvesting on Oct. 1 and will remain open through May 15, 2021 – unless there are reasons to extend the season or curtail it, such as hurricanes, heavy rain events or pollution spills.

“There are human health considerations as well as resource management considerations when determining the opening and closing of the regular shellfish harvest season,” said Ben Dyar, head of DNR’s shellfish management section. “In the warmer months, bacteria that naturally occur in warm marine water reproduce, some of which can be harmful to humans, such as Vibrio bacteria. Water temperature and Vibrio bacteria is one of the factors that is considered in deciding when to open shellfish harvest season and is monitored by DHEC. DNR sets the opening and closing of the shellfish season in close communication with DHEC. These dates, for the past several years, have fallen on or near the first of October for opening season and mid-May for closing of the season.”

Climate change might have an impact on shellfish resources.

“It is argued that rising global water temperatures can have an increasing effect on the frequency and intensity of storms which include hurricanes and large rainfall events. That said, oysters play key roles in our estuaries and have a host of positive ecological benefits,” Dyar said. “Besides helping filter water and creating habitat for over a hundred different species, oysters help curb erosion by acting as a breakwater for our coastal marshes. Estuarine systems can help absorb a massive amount of energy from large storms coming from offshore.”

Commercial oyster harvesters, such as Bluffton Oyster Company’s owner Larry Toomer, have begun sending their boats out on the early low tides, shifting departure times as the tides shift.

“We’re out every day weather permitting, and depending on when the low tide is. Every day the tide is an hour later,” Toomer said. “We have our own permitted areas that we work, and every day we go to different places.”

Anyone who doesn’t believe gravity has an effect on oyster harvesting isn’t watching the coastal waters. Toomer says gathering has been a little slow with the higher than normal tides.

“We haven’t really had any very good tides yet,” he said. “It happens sometimes whenever the season opens according to the moon. I’ve seen it like this before.”

Bluffton Oyster Company hauls in an average of 500 bushels a week, with the first distribution going to Toomer’s Bluffton Family Seafood restaurant and a number of other local restaurants.

For those who choose to try their hand at digging or harvesting on their own, there are numerous open oyster grounds in Beaufort’s waterways.

South Carolina owns all the oysters, and commercial fishers are granted cultural harvest permits. Oyster lovers who want to dig or harvest for the family roast must have a Saltwater Recreational Fishing License. Maps of designated harvest areas may be found on the DNR website.

The limit for the licensed casual harvesters is two U.S. bushels of oysters and one-half bushel of clams in any one day, limited to twice a week.

Maps of all the oyster beds – such as the South Edisto-Savannah recreational shellfish map – can be found on the DNR site showing both state and public grounds, both of which are open for recreational harvesting.

When you pull up that cluster of oyster shells, after admiring your work, take your screwdriver, a small hammer or a pipe and knock off the small or dead shells while you’re on the bank. Doing this there will provide that habitat for future baby oysters to attach and grow.

“When you harvest oysters, you are also harvesting their habitat – which is why it is important to cull in place, and why you should recycle your shells once you are done eating (the oysters),” Dyar said. “You can recycle your shells at one of DNRs recycling drop off locations. DNR uses 100% of the recycled shell to manage South Carolina oyster populations by putting the shell back into the water during the oyster spawning season where the recycled shell will act as a place for baby oysters to land, create their own shell and eventually create a new oyster reef.”

So, the next time you open an oyster and pop it in your mouth, you can thank that adventurous cave dweller who looked at it and said, “My, that looks tasty.”

Gwyneth J. Saunders is a veteran journalist and freelance writer living in Bluffton.