Shelling out for better fishing

Volunteers with Topwater Action prepare to put oyster shell at a reef near the I-526 bridge.

Not everyone who attends today's Lowcountry Oyster Festival at Boone Hall Plantation is a fishing enthusiast. Whether they know it or not, they will be helping to improve inshore fisheries as they consume 80,000 pounds of the tasty mollusks. The "empties" will be recycled to provide habitat for future inshore oyster reefs up and down the coast of South Carolina.

Topwater Action is a branch of Coastal Conservation Association South Carolina dedicated to improve water quality and recreational angling. It was created in 2009 and has partnered with the S.C. Department of Natural Resources' SCORE (South Carolina Oyster Restoration and Enhancement) program. The Topwater Action campaign has done 62 volunteer projects on 22 sites spanning the entire South Carolina coastline.

Oysters are filter feeders that can process more than 50 gallons of water during a 24-hour period. Oysters also serve as reefs, attracting small crabs, shrimp and minnows which in turn attract desirable fish species such as redfish, trout, flounder and sheepshead.

"The oyster habitat is a big magnet for fish," said Gary Keisler, who coordinates the Topwater Action program. "That's the restaurant, where the fish go to get their lunch."

When oysters spawn, the larvae are released into the water column and are free swimming for a couple of weeks, said Ben Dyar of DNR. They then settle out, and where they land determines their future. If they land in a soft substrate, they probably die, but if they find a hard surface such as concrete, wood or, better yet, an oyster shell, they survive. And in two to three years there are oysters that are a harvestable size.

DNR began an oyster recycling program in 1999, starting with one recycle bin, and that year recycled about 500 bushels of oysters. The program has 27 locations listed on the DNR website (

"All the recycled shell we use is put back in locations that are accessible by the public," Dyar said.

Shell, whether it comes from a big event like the Lowcountry Oyster Festival or from one of the recycling bins, is transported to one of four quarantine sites where the shell remains for six months. Once it is deemed safe to be used again, the shell will be reintroduced into a marine environment in one of two ways. For loose shell, DNR uses a large barge capable of holding 1,000 bushels of oysters which are blown into place with something similar to a large fire hose.

The Topwater Action efforts are more labor intensive. Volunteers gather and shovel the shell into mesh bags, which are loaded into one of two 18-foot "barges" - jon boats - which can be towed to more remote locations. Volunteers then get out and place the mesh bags in place to build the new oyster reef. CCA hopes to have a new 21-foot skiff available soon that will allow the group to carry approximately 300 bags of shell.

"It's extremely labor intensive, and that's where our grassroots strength is," said Scott Whitaker, executive director of CCA South Carolina. "We've got people willing to work and regularly call on our membership."

The oyster reefs also help cut down erosion. Keisler said a good example of that is a Topwater Action project located between the dock at the Daniel island sales center and the I-526 bridge.

Topwater Action also has worked with school programs. Wando High School students have helped bag the shell. Moultrie Middle School students formed a bucket brigade and helped build an oyster reef at Alhambra Hall in Mount Pleasant.

"It's important to get kids involved at a young age," Keisler said. "We need to watch out for our environment, protect it."

Oyster season continues for a few more months. When you do your backyard oyster roast, don't discard the shell; instead, take it to a recycling center and make a payment to a better fishing future.