Flying over the Lowcountry salt marshes last week, a colleague from North Dakota was awestruck by the abundance of oyster beds.
He kept asking as we passed over different sections of marsh if the dark spots below us were oysters. Since he is a Midwestern boy I explained to him the value of oyster reefs, not only as a gastronomic resource but the role they play in the salt marsh.
Besides his amazement, I think he was somewhat disappointed because during his visit he was doing his best at nearly every meal to reduce the Southeastern supply of shrimp and oysters, and when it came to the oysters he could see it was a losing battle.
Lowcountry residents are blessed with an abundance of oysters. Although the oyster population is below historic levels from 100 years ago it has remained fairly stable in recent years. However, oysters are under a constant threat from disease, siltation, watercourse alteration, overharvest and physical destruction of the oyster bed itself.
South Carolina oysters are known as intertidal oysters because they grow in the area of creeks and sounds that are exposed during the tidal cycle. Oysters north of Cape Fear, N.C., are subtidal oysters, meaning they remain covered during low tide.
Oyster reefs play in important role in salt marsh ecology. Besides providing valuable habitat for a host of critters, from crabs to redfish, they filter a tremendous amount water while feeding, thereby improving water quality.
Despite their importance, Lowcountry oyster beds can withstand some limited amount of harvest, and now is the time for you to collect some for your own oyster roast.
A Lowcountry oyster roast is a treat. At my first oyster roast I remember several of us standing around an open fire and off to the side was a piece of roofing tin suspended over a bed of glowing coals. It was right at the start of turkey season because I can still hear the sound of oysters opening under the water-soaked burlap bag interrupting the conversation of whether the turkeys were going to gobble in the morning.
While oysters seem to be growing everywhere the public can only harvest from authorized areas. There are three areas, known as Shellfish Culture Permits, State Shellfish Grounds and Public Oyster Grounds. The South Carolina Department of Natural Resources (SCDNR) maintains the last two areas for non-commercial public harvesting. The public may harvest from the first area only if they have written permission from the permit holder.
Lowcountry oysters grow in clusters, and they reach a harvestable size in about 3 years. The cluster is formed by successive sets of oysters, and eventually the weight of the cluster can cause the lower oysters to be pushed into mud where they eventually suffocate. Harvesters are encouraged to cull oysters in place; that is break apart the cluster and leave the smaller oysters in place for future growth.
To harvest oysters, you must possess a S.C. Saltwater Fishing License. The limit is 2 bushels of oysters per person per day.
Maps of public oyster grounds are located on the SCDNR Web site at www.dnr.sc.gov, or you may call (843) 953-9300 for more information. Beds periodically are closed due to poor water quality, so it is advisable to call 1-800-285-1618 before hitting the water.
Collecting oysters is easy. After you've decided where to go and gotten your license, check the tide table for a low tide; the lower the better. A bucket, a small hammer for culling and some gloves are all you need. Once back on the hill, rinse the oysters and get ready for a roast.
While it does seem that oysters are everywhere, be mindful of this beneficial resource and harvest responsibly. They do help support our great inshore fishery as well as provide a forum to talk about turkey season, which is only right around the corner.