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Environment: In months without an 'r' oystermen reseed beds

By Jackie R. Broach
Coastal Observer

It’s not yet 8 a.m., but the July morning is already searing and the air is thick with humidity as Franklin “Snakeman” Smalls guides his old 14-foot jon boat across the winding waterways of Murrells Inlet.

The only sounds are the boat’s motor and the shrieks of oystercatchers skimming the water behind him.

Like the birds, Smalls has oysters on his mind, though the season for harvesting is long closed and won’t open again for months to come.

On this day, his mission is to replenish the oyster supply, ensuring there will be plenty for him to pick and sell in the seasons ahead.

The annual process, called reseeding, is mandated by state law for shellfishing grounds leased by the state for commercial harvest as part of a resource management program. On the lease Smalls works, efforts go well beyond legal requirements.

“Some people put out just what they have to, but not us,” Smalls said. “We always put out more than the lease calls for because it’s to our benefit. There’s no benefit to me if I ain’t got no oysters to pick.”

Smalls works for Bill Chandler, a lifelong inlet resident, who leases an area of about a quarter of a mile in Whale Creek, halfway between the Murrells Inlet mainland and Garden City. For Smalls, the oysters on the lease are his livelihood during harvesting season, but Chandler’s interest is one of preservation.

“We’re depleting our oysters in Murrells Inlet and we need to protect what we have,” Chandler said.

With no requirement for annual reseeding of areas open to public harvesting, “leases are the only way really of retaining some control” and preserving the supply, he said. “It’s the only way you’re going to keep any oysters in Murrells Inlet with the way the population has increased. We’ve got too many people drawing on limited resources.”

Reseeding can take many forms, but in simple terms it involves encouraging the growth of new oysters either by transplanting live oysters into beds that are harvested, or depositing some material into the water that oyster spawn, known as spat, can attach to and develop.

On Chandler’s lease, Smalls drives long bamboo stakes into the mud for spat to cling to. He put out 1,956 stakes this year, though only 1,600 were required.

A 12-inch section at the top of each stake is coated in cement to create a rough texture that oyster larvae seem to prefer.

“We used to use live oysters,” Chandler said. Oysters would be transplanted to Murrells Inlet from Garden City, where high bacteria levels make it dangerous to eat oysters from the water and illegal to harvest them. Once moved out of the polluted water into a cleaner area, it takes only about two weeks for oysters to become safe to eat again.

Putting oyster shells in the water is another method of reseeding, but it’s hard to get the shells in exactly the spot where they’re wanted, Chandler explained. They can drift or slide down slopes, but stakes can be placed to exact specifications and they stay where they’re put allowing new oysters to grow there.

Reseeding takes place from June through August, the prime months for spat production, according to Chandler. He usually likes to have the process finished in June, but the last 20 percent or so of the job was done in July this year.

On Chandler’s lease, the reseeding process starts with the purchase of bamboo poles, which Smalls splits into quarters with a machete.

Standing in a small patch of shade in front of an outbuilding at Chandler’s waterfront home, Smalls stands the pole straight, puts the blade in the center and uses a short section of thick tree branch to hammer it down. He wears a gray T-shirt and jeans that have gone white with age and wear, and he’s barefoot, his long brown feet peeking out from beneath frayed hems.

“He’ll end up with about 2,000 stakes, so sometimes he’ll sit out here and split poles all day,” Chandler said.

When finished, Smalls paints the tops of the stakes with cement and carries them in bundles across the yard to the dock, where he stacks them for a few days until the cement has had time to dry.

After that, he starts stacking them in the center of his boat. When he’s finished, it’s piled high with stakes, leaving barely enough room for Smalls to climb in, in front of the motor.

“I been picking oysters in this canoe for more than 20 years,” he said, trying to sweet talk the motor into starting. “One time I had 22 bushels of oysters in this little canoe and two burlap sacks of clams.”

The most Smalls ever picked at one time was 47 bushels when he was working in Beaufort and before restrictions on oyster harvesting were in place. He doesn’t pick more than four bushels a day on Chandler’s lease — another effort at preservation. Oysters sell for about $12 a bushel, but Smalls remembers when he got 60 cents a bushel.

When Smalls reaches the area of the inlet he wants to reseed, just as the tide starts to recede, he hops out of the small boat, landing in water that reaches his upper thighs. He has put on shoes by now to protect his feet from the razor sharp edges of oyster shells. He pulls the stakes out of the boat one at a time, using a hammer to drive each one about a foot into the mud.

And that’s all there is to it, he says with a wide grin.

The tops of the stakes aren’t visible under the water, but gradually start to appear as the tide ebbs. They’re placed along the marsh line so they’re barely visible against the marsh grass. He puts about 100 of the stakes, about a foot apart, in one area before moving to the next.

He’ll cover the whole lease during reseeding, but some areas don’t grow oysters as well, so they won’t get as much attention, Chandler explained.

There are also some tree limbs and sand fencing mixed in with the stakes, he said. They put out anything they expect oysters might attach to, but bamboo serves best.

“We did put in a little wood earlier this year, but we’ll see how it holds up,” Chandler said. “The state doesn’t want us to use treated wood, so bamboo lasts a whole lot better than wood.”

Marine worms eat through the bamboo, too, but it takes three or four times longer.

“We used to use pine grade stakes and the worms just destroyed them so fast they didn’t last even a whole season sometimes,” Chandler said. “We’ve done a variety of things to encourage oyster growth but the bamboo stakes are the best thing we’ve done.”

It’s a trick he picked up during a meeting of oystermen at Hobcaw Barony.

“I know the Australians were using bamboo and there’s no telling what the Japanese are doing,” he said. “Some people hang strings from docks and spat will attach to that. They’ll attach to just about anything that doesn’t get silted over.”

Another benefit to the vertical bamboo stakes is that silt slides down and builds up at the bottom, leaving the top “relatively clean.”

Once spat attach to a surface, it takes about three years for oysters to grow large enough to harvest.

“These have been here about two years,” Chandler says, pulling up a stake that’s top-heavy with clusters of oysters. Ideally the stakes are pulled up and the oysters knocked off at about 12-18 months. Then the oysters are spread out along the bottom to continue their development. But some sections are left alone a bit longer.

“Some stakes fall over because they get so heavy with oysters,” he said.

A blade would normally be used to separate the oysters from the stakes, but without one on hand, he demonstrates using a boat oar to remove the shells.

“They come right off,” he said.

Left to grow in the bed for another year, they’ll make an excellent meal.

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