Recycled oyster shells help improve South Carolina's estuaries. Tommy Braswell/Special to The Post and Courier

'Tis the season for oysters. Family gatherings, bowl game parties and New Year's activities are frequently highlighted by a backyard oyster roast.

When the oyster roast is over and it's time to clean up, there's the question of what to do with all those shells.

The answer: take them to one of the many oyster shell drop-off locations throughout the state established by the Department of Natural Resources' South Carolina Oyster Shell Recycling Program. The empty shells can be used to help improve the state's estuaries.

The oyster shell recycling program began in 1999 with one drop-off location, and now more than 30 sites statewide can be found on the website (saltwaterfishing.sc.gov/oyster.html).

Oysters are filter feeders and can process more than 50 gallons of water in 24 hours. Live oysters serve as reefs, attracting small fish and crabs, which in turn draw larger fish such as redfish, spotted seatrout and sheepshead. According to the SCDNR, more than 120 different species can be found on oyster reefs. Oysters also help protect against erosion.

The recycled shell also provides a solid surface where new oysters can grow. When oysters spawn, the larvae are released into the water column. They need a hard surface, such as recycled shell, to survive and grow; if they land in the mud, they will die.

Dozens of restaurants also participate in the recycling program, not to mention numerous conservation-minded groups and individuals.

Coastal Conservation Association of South Carolina (ccasouthcarolina.com) has instituted its Topwater Action program and joined forces with SCDNR, donating more than $100,000 in equipment such as dump trailers to pick up the shells and boats that are used as barges to transport them to help with the mission, not to mention countless man hours. CCA volunteers have been gathering empty shells at the Lowcountry oyster festival for years as part of the project.

Once the oyster shells are collected, they are transported to the South Carolina Department of Natural Resources’ Fort Johnson facility on James Island where they are quarantined for six months. They are baked by the sun and washed by the rain and tested two times to be sure no harmful bacteria exist. When they are deemed clean, the shells are either bagged or loaded onto a barge to be relocated back into South Carolina waters.

SCDNR has a list of do's and don'ts for those bringing shells to be recycled:

  • Do separate the shells from the trash. Shells mixed with trash is not suitable for recycling. Provide separate containers for shells and trash.
  • Do dump shells from bags or containers and leave only shells in the bin.
  • Don't put live oysters in South Carolina waters. If the oysters you purchased were harvested outside South Carolina, it is illegal to place them in S.C. waters. Placing imported oysters in our water can created environmental problems and may harm local oysters or other animals.
  • Don't put freshly shucked oyster shells in S.C. waters. To avoid contamination, shell should be recycled to SCDNR and properly quarantined for six months.

Recycle Christmas trees

For years, anglers on the Santee Cooper lakes would scour the Lowcountry after Christmas in search of discarded Christmas trees that they would sink in secret locations on the lakes to make their own private fishing holes.

It's now illegal for individuals to do that without a permit, but the S.C. Department of Natural Resources uses discarded Christmas trees to supplement the structure on the fish attractors it maintains on lakes Marion and Moultrie.

Starting Jan. 3, you can drop off your tree at the Dennis Wildlife Center, located at 305 Black Oak Road in Bonneau. A sign will be posted to direct you to a trailer to drop off your tree.

The location of the fish attractors on lakes Marion and Moultrie, as well as other impoundments throughout the state, can be found at the SCNDR dnr.sc.gov/fish/fishattract/fishattr.html.