Everybody knows what the secret ingredient is to a good cocktail sauce -- fresh oysters. The season kicks off today.
"The water has cooled off. It's about time we did a little oystering," Andy Jennings, a shellfish biologist with the S.C. Natural Resources Department, told a group at a meeting Wednesday to cheers.
This year there's new shucks to the whole deal. The Nature Conservancy, along with DNR and Fisher Recycling, is launching a restaurant shell recycling program with an $8,000 grant from U.S. Fish and Wildlife Service. A half-dozen Charleston restaurants that go through 100 bushels or more per month already have signed on.
Organizers hope the effort eventually could pull in some 4,000 bushels of shells, bringing the total annual DNR recycling effort to about 20,000 bushels of shells, enough to add a half-acre of new public oyster reef. That might not sound like much, but every half acre helps. They also hope to make the program a model for other coastal areas.
Some 85 percent of the world's oyster beds present 100 years ago are gone, and the rest are in severe decline, according to a recent Nature Conservancy study. Even in the shell-rich Lowcountry, about half the beds are gone.
A groundbreaking reef restoration project launched by DNR in 1989 ago is considered a model of the kind of effort needed to maintain, and possibly restore those beds. The agency later launched a program to recycle shells for those beds. Today, 22 state recycling drop-offs are located in the coastal counties.
"Husbandry is needed in this fishery," Jennings said. In South Carolina, about one-third of the coastal beds have been closed to harvesting in the past two decades because of pollution. But oddly, the harvest has stayed about the same year to year. Last year was the best commercial harvest in 14 years, more than 95,000 bushels.
But recycling lags behind the harvest and the state has been forced to buy shells from out of state to build its reefs. Restaurants buy more than half of nearly 122,000 bushels of Gulf oysters sold annually in South Carolina, and little of that has been recycled because of the difficulty and cost.
Recycling program organizers hope to change that. Another 16 Charleston restaurants with high-volume oyster sales could be recruited for the program, and 15 College of Charleston students from the school's Students In Free Enterprise program are helping to recruit them.
The recycling cost is a little steep -- $20 per barrel pickup -- but Chris Fisher of Fisher Recycling said he's added free pickup of cardboard, cork and cooking oil to make it more attractive. "If you're going out to eat oysters any time, ask if they recycle," said Joy Brown of The Nature Conservancy.
The oyster and clam season is opening two weeks later than usual because warm coastal waters had created high concentrations of a bacterium that causes gastrointestinal illness. The waters have now cooled enough to comply with federal regulations governing control of the bacterium, a DNR news release said.
Oyster harvesting is a long Lowcountry tradition; the state so far has escaped recreational harvest closings that are now found in other coastal areas, Jennings said. There are 20 public harvest grounds, including 12 in Charleston County; they comprise about 100 acres. Recycled shells have added a half-million bushels to those reefs since the late 1990s.
Recreational harvesters are limited to two bushels and a permit must be bought. The season ends in May 2010.
Charleston-area restaurants participating in oyster shell recycling are:
• Charleston Place
• Fleet Landing
• Hank's Seafood Restaurant
• Liberty Tap Room
• Pearlz Oyster Bar
• Pearlz Two.