Slimy, mouthwatering, revolting, or savory- each of us has a different word to describe the Eastern oyster or Crassostrea virginica. One thing that we can all agree on is their importance. This time of year, oyster roasts are a common trend unique to the Lowcountry. On February 21, Michael Hodges, Coordinator of the South Carolina Oyster Restoration and Enhancement Program, SCORE, highlighted the many reasons to celebrate oysters.
The SCORE program directly supports the oyster lifecycle by laying the foundation for oyster growth. After fertilization occurs, free swimming larva, or baby oysters, will spend two to three weeks feeding and looking for a suitable substrate to land on. Once larva find a hard structure, they will settle, attach and grow. The preferred substrate to attach to is an old oyster shell. Not all oysters have the luxury of attaching to a used shell and have to ‘settle’ for discarded materials.
Once oysters establish themselves, they will grow for two to three years. During this time, they filter 2.5 gallons of water per hour, aiding in chemical exchange, denitrification and removal of heavy metals. Nutrients are then deposited onto the banks as pseudo feces, or “nutrient rich muck,” a food source for other invertebrates like fiddler crabs.
Thanks to the oyster, the saltmarsh is one of the most biodiverse habitats in the world; second only to the rainforest. Oysters form a structured habitat that is home to over 130 species of finfish and macro invertebrates like mud crabs, shrimp and worms. These animals, in turn, serve as a food source for other animals like raccoons, sheepshead fish and humans. After just three years, a typical SCORE bag will support 408 oysters, 172 mussels and 34 crabs.
Oysters also serve as the first line of storm defense. Other breakwater options like engineered seawalls, do not support the same amount of marine life. Holding the pluff mud in place allows for the growth of saltmarsh cordgrass, or Spartina alterniflora, which further fortifies this environment.
The success of the SCORE Program has been attributed to a strong emphasis on education and relationship building. SCORE works with many partners including the South Carolina Aquarium, scout troops, church groups, retirement communities and K-12 students. SCORE offers opportunities to get involved in the reef restoration process each step of the way- from bagging the used oyster shells and growing cordgrass in the classroom, to studying the fish that use the reefs. SCORE makes the volunteer experience educational and rewarding. To date, over 34,000 volunteers have helped to establish 100 sites along South Carolina’s coastline. SCORE has constructed 118,324 bags and counting! In 2017, SCORE set a record for volunteers and distributed 15,075 shell bags along the coast.In the future, SCORE will test and develop alternatives to the plastic mesh bags that are currently being deployed in the reefs. Options include biodegradable mesh bags and potato polymer racks developed in the Netherlands. They are also assisting private landowners to establish living shorelines on their properties. Want to help with the next SCORE project? There are many opportunities to do so. Please visit SCORE’s calendar for all upcoming bagging and restoration events. You can also support this initiative by recycling your oyster shells at one of drop-off sites.
A special thank you to this event’s sponsors, Cooper River Brewing and Papa Johns! To support Holland Lifelong Learning when it returns in the fall, please contact Stephanie Gabosch, South Carolina Aquarium Advancement Events Coordinator, at email@example.com.