Nature gets helping hand

State Ports Authority employees Kent Brown (from front to back) and Allison Skipper pass bags of oyster shells to S.C. Department of Natural Resources employees Allie Kreutzer and Jeremy Grigsby on Wednesday in Hobcaw Creek. The SPA employees were helping

State Ports Authority employees put on their mud boots and slogged through the marsh Wednesday afternoon, stacking mesh bags of oyster shells along the shoreline behind the Wando Welch Terminal in Mount Pleasant.

With help from the S.C. Department of Natural Resources, the agency kicked off the second year of its $1 million oyster habitat restoration. The project is one component of the SPA's $12 million "Pledge for Growth" that allocates money to environmental and community projects as the agency develops a new container terminal in North Charleston at the former Charleston Naval Base.

The restoration will plant 8 acres of new oyster reef over five years. The spot along Hobcaw Creek will be built as an ecosystem only, not a harvest area.

DNR's S.C. Oyster Restoration and Enhancement coordinator Nancy Hadley said oysters are "the keystone species" in local waters. They stabilize the shoreline, filter the water and limit suffocating algae blooms. Plus, their beds create a habitat for countless other sea critters.

"If you took them away or didn't have them anymore, the entire ecosystem would change," Hadley said.

The restoration works like this: DNR collects recycled oyster shells, primarily from local roasts. Workers bag the shells in mesh, and then volunteers line the bags along the marsh.

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Microscopic young oysters floating in the water latch onto the mesh and shells, and the reefs grow vertically over time.

Wearing "Pledge for Growth" T-shirts and protective arm bands, about 20 SPA employees on Wednesday placed 300 bags, each weighing up to 40 pounds, in the creek.