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Reef madness: Which comes first? The shell or the oyster?

By Jason Lesley
Coastal Observer

Stewards of the environment are using nature’s original water filters to help Murrells Inlet.

About 350 bags of recycled oyster shells were added to an oyster reef in the inlet in front of Crazy Sister’s Marina this week as a cooperative effort between the Coastal Conservation Association and the S.C. Department of Natural Resources.

Chris Hawley, chairman of the Waccamaw branch of the CCA, said this year’s addition brings the total number of bags of recycled shells in the reef to 1,400 and the oysters growing there filter between 4 and 5 million gallons of water a day.

“These oysters are not for consumption,” Hawley said, “but for water quality, erosion control and different things.”

The Coastal Conservation Association has branches in 15 states with a goal of protecting saltwater fisheries. Hawley said the oyster reef restoration program is a perfect fit. “It provides habitat for small organisms, attracts bait fish that attract game fish,” he said. “Within six months to a year, larvae will attach to the empty shells. These new bags will filter almost a million gallons of water a day. That puts things into perspective. It’s very, very important for water quality.”

He said erosion control is another value of the oyster reef because it breaks up the wakes generated by boat traffic and protects marsh grass where so much ocean life begins. “There are all kinds of benefits,” Hawley said.

Jay Sims, a CCA state board member and reef building volunteer this year, said the recycled shells put down in previous years have taken on a natural appearance and are growing oysters. “DNR said the ones we put out this week will begin to kick in as soon as they are flooded with the tide. It will happen fairly quickly.”

The acceptance of oyster shell recycling has allowed restoration projects to gain traction across the state, according to Clint Elliott, another CCA committee member. “We feel good about recycling,” he said. “DNR has it down to a fine point, and it’s come a long way.”

Shells are collected at recycling points, like the one at the Murrells Inlet oyster landing, and hauled to Hobcaw Barony where they are dried in the sun for months to kill bacteria. Volunteers bag the shells in winter, and the bags are distributed to reefs in summer when oyster larvae are seeking hard surfaces to begin life. Recycled shells are kept in their original estuaries.

The project in the inlet will continue through the DNR’s South Carolina Oyster Recycling Enhancement with help from the Coastal Conservation Association’s Topwater Action Campaign.

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