. . . efforts to restore oyster reefs in places like Beaufort County face a threat that could affect virtually anyone who depends on the harvest of wild oysters. South Carolina and nearby states are having trouble finding the shells they need to put back in tidal areas to restore oyster populations.
At one time considered marine trash, oyster shells have become a valuable — but limited — commodity along the South Atlantic coast.
“This definitely is a multi-state, national problem: finding shell,’’ said Ben Dyar, an oyster specialist with the S.C. Department of Natural Resources. Without adequate supplies of shells, oyster populations could suffer, curtailing the commercial harvest and driving up the price of shellfish in restaurants.
Fewer oyster reefs and lower populations could also mean more polluted waterways because oysters filter out contaminants in water. There are multiple reasons for the shell shortage, including the toll that over-harvesting has taken through the years in South Atlantic states.
But people also are throwing away the shells after serving oysters in seafood houses or at community oyster roasts. People are using shells to pave driveways and enhance gardens. And they’re crushing shells to sell for chicken feed or as ingredients in cosmetic products.
The shortage is so pronounced that some states have spent millions of dollars through the years purchasing shells to restore and rebuild oyster reefs — sometimes competing for the limited shells offered by shucking houses from Texas to Virginia. Prices have increased from well under a dollar a bushel two decades ago to many times more than that today. The cost is now running from $3 to $7 a bushel, say some shucking house owners and state wildlife officials. South Carolina, with vast marshes and hundreds of seafood restaurants, spends, on average, about $100,000 annually buying shells from other states, according to the S.C. Department of Natural Resources.
All told, the state, using a variety of funding sources, has spent nearly $1 million since 2012 acquiring more than 407,000 bushels of oyster shells, which equates to about 22 million pounds, according to the DNR. South Carolina had been paying less than $3 a bushel, but the average price has jumped above $3 in the past two years, the DNR says.
Plenty of other states also are hungry for oyster shells. Georgia spends about $138,000 annually buying shells and trucking them to the Peach State. Shells often come from Florida and sometimes Texas. Some of the biggest expenditures on the South Atlantic coast are around the Chesapeake Bay in Maryland and Virginia. Virginia spends $2 million to $3 million annually purchasing oyster shells from instate shucking houses and other sources in the state, state officials there said.
Maryland has even bought railroad cars of fossilized oyster shells from Florida to help with its oyster restoration programs in the Chesapeake Bay, where oyster populations have plummeted from historic levels. “The whole thing is crazy,’’ said Ted Wilgis, an oyster reef specialist with the non-profit N.C. Coastal Federation. “It just became a bidding war.’’
Relying on oyster shell from harvested oysters is always going to be a losing proposition, there will always be less shell returned to the water than was harvested. It would have been easier to leave more oysters in the water in the first place.
Oysters don't need oyster shell to set. They will, happily, or perhaps reluctantly, set on all kinds hard material. I've seen them set on rocks, concrete, ceramic, fiberglass, even plastic sheeting. When an oyster larva actually is ready to set, it doesn't have the luxury of spending a lot of time looking for just the right situation.