A cluster conundrum

Oysters grow in a bed in Hobcaw Creek.

When Maryland enacted a law establishing a minimum size for harvested oysters, the state’s oystermen grumbled about politicians who didn’t understand their business. Many of them ignored the rule entirely, preferring to sell their illegal catch to out-of-state growers and eaters who apparently didn’t care.

“It was pretty controversial,” says Mike Naylor, assistant director of the Maryland Department of Natural Resources’ shellfish division. “It was a big discussion.”

South Carolina has faced some of the same issues this oyster season, the first governed by a permit condition requiring commercial harvesters to cull oysters measuring less than 3 inches. The proviso was adopted to enhance the health of oyster beds by protecting future crops, but it’s been assailed by oystermen who say they’ll have to overhaul their harvesting techniques to comply with it.

Naylor predicts the holdouts will come around. That’s what happened in Maryland, where the fight was finally settled more than a century ago.

“There wasn’t one prior to this?” Naylor said when asked about South Carolina’s new permit condition. “That’s amazing. Our cull law was adopted in 1890. There’s never been any serious move to change it, even from the watermen.”

According to fisheries experts, South Carolina is the last state to impose a minimum size restriction on oysters harvested for sale. While the science behind throwing back small oysters is undisputed, SCDNR shellfish manager Nancy Hadley says the longstanding “stumbling block” was the configuration of cluster oysters, in which tiny oysters are fused with a knot of bigger bivalves.

“How do you deal with this?” she asks. Ultimately, the agency borrowed language from Georgia, indicating that smaller oysters that can’t be removed from a cluster without damaging either the major or minor oyster are OK. “We just don’t want a ball of one-inch oysters,” Hadley says.

Still, some oystermen fear South Carolina is prioritizing the interests of boutique single producers above a hallowed tradition of clusters.

Dave “Clammer Dave” Belanger, who prides himself on pristine and unclustered Caper’s Blades, dismisses their sentimentality.

“If the culture is muddy, nasty oysters, to be served only on a plywood table, I guess it is getting away from the culture,” he says.

Clusters are not biologically unique to the Carolinas. They occur whenever a baby oyster alights on an older oyster and settles down to grow. Any flat, hard surface is attractive to a reef oyster, but many of the options available to an oyster are too small, brittle or slimy to be supportive. Since oyster shells are ideal attachment spots, multigenerational colonies develop in the style of a family tree (albeit one lashed with sediment.)

The oldest of the oysters included in a cluster are usually dead and gone, victims of overcrowding or too much smothering mud. “The few that do succeed in gaining some size while extinguishing the others very seldom grow to be as shapely as the single oysters,” the New York Fisheries Commissioner clucked in an 1885 report. “They belong to the class of ‘roughs,’ and are used principally by the canners or packers.”

They’re also a staple of oyster roasts in South Carolina, although Belanger thinks eaters’ tolerance for clusters is a relatively recent development. He believes enslaved African Americans were once responsible for knocking off small oysters before they blossomed into clusters. “So it could be argued we’re going back to the true culture,” he says. “It’s just white boys are doing it now.”

Belanger started breaking down oysters where he collected them because “it’s not nice to mess with Mother Nature” by clear-cutting reefs, which Hadley says is a fair description of how many South Carolina oystermen harvest.

“You can’t get them except at low tide, so it’s a whole lot faster to just clear cut that bank and throw everything in your boat and worry about it later,” she says. “I think there’s a lot of that that goes on: They can practically rake and be out of there.”

None of the oystermen contacted in connection with this story, other than Belanger, was willing to speak on the record.

“Commercial fishermen are not real talkative as a general rule,” says Rutledge Leland, owner of Carolina Seafoods, a distributorship in McClellanville. But he adds, “A lot of them were very upset because they were like, ‘we’ve been doing this all our lives.’ ”

The oyster industry’s unofficial opposition to the permit condition is partly economic. South Carolinians have long sold oysters by the bushel, a clear disincentive for sorting, which Belanger estimates can cut daily productivity in half.

“If the commercial dealer doesn’t look closely, or is not being real selective, he’s going to pay them as if it’s all edible oysters, and it isn’t,” Hadley says, referring to the mud and empty shells that account for a significant portion of a bushel’s weight. “This should be a very good thing for the industry, because they’re harvesting better-looking oysters: They should be able to get a better price.”

Seafood buyers will surely pass the extra cost on to consumers. “A rude awakening is going to happen in the Lowcountry over the next couple of years,” Belanger says.

Scientists say keeping prices artificially low could ultimately wipe out the oyster fishery. As W.K. Brooks wrote in a 1905 publication intended to persuade Maryland’s oystermen to follow protective rules, “some policy must be adopted which will supplement the supply granted by nature, or else the supply will surely fail.”

For years, SCDNR has asked oystermen to cull-in-place. “Some did, and others didn’t,” Hadley says. Now, the fifth condition printed on every oyster permit reads, “Fishermen shall cull oysters where harvested, and all removable oysters smaller than three inches, accumulated dead shell, and clutch material, shall immediately be returned to the bottom from which it was harvested.”

“The rule was hard to interpret exactly,” Leland says, adding that he didn’t think it was strictly enforced this season. “I didn’t hear of anyone getting a citation. I guess people just assumed they were being watched; the quality definitely improved.”

According to Hadley, enforcement was conducted on a three-strikes system, with the first two violations meriting warnings. “But it gets their attention,” she says.

SCDNR will re-evaluate the condition in coming years, but Hadley says the initial results seem promising.

“One ground which we were really kind of worried about, it was only open for a brief period, and it looked much better than expected,” Hadley says of beds around Beaufort. “Clearly, people had been culling in place, and that was very encouraging. A ground that has been harvested conservatively and sustainably will recover over the summer and be ready to go again.”