Local oysters might be served during summer months

“Ace blade” oyster clumps are separated at St. Jude Farms in Bennetts Point. Regulators are considering proposals to open oyster mariculture during summer months. File/Staff

Your mother always told you, only eat oysters in a month with an “r.” The state Legislature might be about to tell you different.

Regulators are putting together proposals to open oyster mariculture, or farm harvesting, in the summer months when the shellfish have been off limits because of the increased chance of bacterial infection. The move comes as two Beaufort lawmakers work a bill through the Legislature calling for it.

The idea is to keep fresh local oysters on the plate year-round for tourists and residents who love the salty slurp, while bolstering the beleaguered shellfishing industry. A handful of oyster farms operate in the Beaufort area, and St. Jude Farms operates in Colleton County.

The bacteria occur in warm weather while intertidal oyster are out of the water. Farm-grown oysters can be kept under water, kept cooler during handling and tested to avoid bacteria. A number of other oyster-growing states have at least partial summer harvests, although at least one, Virginia, has had incidents of the infection turning up.

Vibrio bacteria in raw or undercooked shellfish can cause serious stomach distress, and in some instances death.

Rep. Bill Bowers, D-Hampton, and Rep. Shannon Erickson, R-Beaufort, say studies have shown proper precautions and monitoring can keep the crop safe.

“We plan to proceed cautiously to ensure safety. This is a unique opportunity and we’re missing out,” Bowers said.

“Every single shellfish has the potential for bacteria. But we have very strict regulations to prevent that,” Erickson said. “We don’t want to have an issue with the very, very good safety record in South Carolina. The data I’ve seen suggests there’s a safe way to do it. I think it’s worth looking at to see if it’s possible.”

The specifics of any change in the regulations would have to be approved by the Legislature. In its draft notice of taking the proposal to a public hearing, the S.C. Department of Health and Environmental Services said it would provide specific criteria for harvesting and handling to protect the health of consumers because of the risk.

The S.C. Department of Natural Resources said the requirements would be more restrictive, and likely to include the time of day the crop could be harvested and a time limit between harvest and refrigeration.

The state has regulated shellfish harvesting for 100 years, said Mel Bell, DNR fisheries director. In the beginning it was as much to give oysters a chance to spawn and re-populate the beds, and because the quality of the summer harvest was typically poor.

“In more recent times, with a better understanding of the human health risks of harvesting and consuming shellfish with high levels of bacteria, such as Vibrio, the summer closure has proven extremely beneficial in protecting consumers of local shellfish from illness, as well as maintaining the quality and image of our locally harvested seafood products,” he said.

Bowers said he expected the bill to be passed in the 2017 legislative session.

“We have a nice level of support,” he said.

Reach Bo Petersen at 843-937-5744.