’Tis the season for feasting on beasts for the table, but some treats don’t need a carving knife to relished. Oysters have always figured prominently among Lowcountry’s culinary delights, from beach bonfires, outdoor grills, home cooks and restaurant chefs, and this is the time of year when they are in their glory.
Oyster harvesting season opened Oct. 15 and runs through May 15 – usually, barring storms or heightened bacteria levels.
You don’t need a large, commercial boat like local companies have to harvest oysters. Individuals may harvest their own oysters – if you’ve got the right knowledge and equipment. You have to also be willing to protect the oyster beds, because oysters are not only a choice morsel valued my many, they are also one of the reasons our local waters continue to be treasured.
“Not only are oysters important to our waterways because of the habitat they create and the erosion they prevent, but one single adult oyster can filter up to 50 gallons of water a day thereby improving the water quality,” said Rachel Hawes, Land, Water and Wildlife project manager for the Coastal Conservation League. “The presence of oysters in our waterways is critical to the health of our estuaries and important in ensuring the water is safe for recreational activities.”
The Conservation League’s latest press release states that “Oysters are crucial to our estuaries, providing key habitat for many economically important species like shrimp, blue crab, red drum, and flounder. In total, there are about 120 species that rely on oyster reefs! Along with habitat creation, they also protect our shoreline from erosion and flooding by trapping sediment, enhancing the salt marsh, and disseminating wave energy from boat wakes and storms.”
The South Carolina Department of Natural Resources has plenty of information on how to harvest oysters while taking maintaining the health of the estuaries in which they live.
Oysters can be harvested during the six-month window, but only from certain locations, and only during certain hours. It is illegal to harvest between one half-hour after the official sunset and one half-hour before the official sunrise.
Only certain areas may be harvested. SCDNR maintains a monitoring system that keeps track of the level of harmful fecal coliform bacteria that can be found at certain points in the waterways. Too high a level and the area is closed for all harvesting.
Heavy storms, especially hurricanes, can change the salinity and the amount of bacteria in certain areas, making the shellfish unsafe to consume. Up-to-date maps of permitted recreational shellfish beds can be found on the SCDNR website at dnr.sc.gov/marine/shellfish/shellfishmaps.
While on the website, apply for a saltwater fisherman’s license. Money from license fees goes back into the water through restoration and conservation efforts. A license costs $10 per year, or $9 if you’re a little older than the average oyster-loving harvester.
If you really love oysters, you alone can harvest up to two bushels of oysters in one day, two calendar days per seven-day period. That’s enough for a pretty good roast for at least two people.
Depending on how many friends you harvest with, only three people per boat can have the maximum limit of two bushels each.
Wise harvesters believe in sustaining the bed by culling in place. A recommended tool is a flat-head screwdriver to break off clusters of oysters from their beds. And wear heavy gloves. Oyster shells are sharp and jagged, and a slipped screwdriver can end a harvest quickly.
SCDNR recommends you keep only those oysters that are three inches or longer. Knock off the dead shells and smaller oysters where and as you harvest. These will fall back onto the beds to make way for next year’s crop and a continuing habitat for the spat, or oyster larvae, that will grow and eventually reach adult sizes.
Once you’ve harvested your oysters, and roasted, baked, stewed or eaten them on the half-shell, there’s that pile of oyster shells remaining in your backyard.
What do you do with them? Recycle them in appropriate places – and that doesn’t mean back in the water or in the dump. There are three recycling centers south of the Broad River: Edgar Glenn Boat Landing, 305 Okatie Highway; Trask Boat Boat Landing, 325 Sawmill Creek Road, Bluffton; and Coastal Discovery Museum, 70 Honey Horn Drive, Hilton Head.
Don’t wash them. Just drop them off in the designated spots – no trash or containers such as bags or buckets – and SCDNR will collect them, quarantine them for six months and recycle them onto oyster beds to create more habitats for oysters.
Local restaurants also recycle their shells, from Harbour Town Golf Club to Skull Creek Boathouse, from Capt. Woody’s in Bluffton to Morgan River Grill on St. Helena. Imagine the amount of shells they have to haul.
Oysters have been consumed in this area for more than 4,000 years, as evidenced by the middens or mounds and shell rings formed by indigenous people. Protecting the oysters while enjoying their succulent and sweet saltiness will help continue that tradition.
“Although we cannot predict future harvest levels, commercial oyster landings in South Carolina have remained relatively consistent in the last few years at around 19,000 to 20,000 bushels (475 to 500 tons), 95% of which is sold in state,” said Ben Dyar, head of the SCDNR shellfish management section. “This is commercial landings only, as we do not have reliable recreational harvest data, especially on a monthly record since reporting for recreational harvest is voluntary.”
For more information on how to harvest, protect and enjoy our local oysters, go to SCDNR.gov or sccoastalresources.com.
You do want to keep eating oysters, right?
Gwyneth J. Saunders is a veteran journalist and freelance writer living in Bluffton.