MYRTLE BEACH, S.C. (WBTW) — Only about 10% of the 300,000 bushels of oysters consumed each year in South Carolina are recycled, costing the state tens of thousands of dollars to purchase shells from elsewhere, and potentially seriously threatening aquatic habitats.

“Each year, we have to buy shells simply because we are not recycling as much as is consumed in South Carolina,” said Michael Hodges, the manager of the South Carolina Department of Natural Resources’s South Carolina Oyster Recycling and Enhancement program, or SCORE. 

Most of the oysters harvested commercially stay in the state. However, few restaurants in the Grand Strand area are involved in recycling, and there are few drop off boxes in the area. 

A lack of recycling has led the SCDNR to have to purchase tens of thousands of bushels of shells from other states — a cost which is fluctuating, and has almost doubled during the pandemic. 

A keystone species

Oyster shells are critical for infants still in the larvae stage — if they don’t attach to a surface, they will suffocate. 

The young oysters are free swimmers looking to undergo a process called setting, which involves finding a substrate to attach to. Once they do, they cannot relocate.

An oyster’s favorite substrate? Other oysters. 

It’s why oysters grow in clusters, creating reefs that create habitats for other marine creatures like fish, shrimp and crabs. 

Each oyster can filter 50 gallons of water a day. The reefs also hold sediment in to prevent shore erosion, dissipate water from storms and decrease flooding. They are also a sustainable food source, as long as shells are recycled.

“There are so many reasons why having these in our waterways are so important,” said Rachel Hawes, the land, water and wildlife project manager for the Coastal Conservation League.

But as oyster shell recycling remains low, the animal’s population is on the decline.

“There’s a huge area to grow in there,” Hawes said.

Hodges said the SCDNR has seen overharvesting in certain areas, especially in Charleston, where the state has had to repair beds to help replenish the number of oysters. If more shells aren’t recycled, and South Carolina isn’t able to buy them from other states, the number of beds available for harvesting will decrease.

“We could see some serious drops in the way we have to resource,” Hodges said. 

He said the state still has a fairly healthy amount of oyster beds, but that if more shells aren’t recycled, there could be a drop in how many oysters are harvested. The number of other creatures that use the reefs to hide or mate, like spotted sea trout, crabs and shrimp, would also take a hit.

“If we don’t have that critical, essential fish habitat, then we can see a drop in the stock of commercial and recreational species,” he said. 

There would also be more erosion in marshes, with impacts eventually being seen in upstream ecosystems.

“From the environmental standpoint, oysters are incredible crittes,” Hodges said.

The state’s SCORE program works with volunteer citizens to help collect the recycled oysters and restore habitats. More than 25,000 volunteers have used more than 1,100 tons of shells to create 225 reefs at 69 sites since 2014. 

Adults spawn and larvae settle during the summer, which means that shells planted between late May and late August are the most successful at recruiting juvenile oysters.

The Coastal Conservation League has been working with the SCDNR to provide manpower for the habitat builds. It has also been working to help recruit businesses to recycle, a crucial piece for future efforts. 

Restaurant involvement

Oyster shell recycling bins are mostly clustered around the coast, where most oysters are consumed. 

But in Horry County, there’s a single public recycling spot, a three-sided wooden bin at a vacant lot at 1860 21st Ave N. And despite being a seafood capital, there’s only one participating restaurant.

Another bin is expected to open in North Myrtle Beach, but has been delayed.

There are a handful of participating restaurants and public dropoff locations in Murrells Inlet, one participating restaurant in Florence, and one bin located between Florence and Lake City.

Hawes said most oysters in Myrtle Beach are consumed in restaurants by tourists, making partnerships with the eateries crucial.

“I think the potential there is absolutely huge to get a lot of shells from the restaurants in the area,” Hawes said. 

To participate, restaurants separate the oysters into a separate bin. Volunteers then come and pick up the shells. 

Hawes said more businesses are getting onboard since it isn’t a big ask, and that separating the shells out makes the trash weigh less, saving restaurants money because they’ll need less frequent trash pickups. 

But there are barriers to creating the bins, which include distance. The farther a bin is from the SCORE’s central base in Charleston, Hodges said, the harder it is to get volunteers to the sites. Oysters that smell after long, hot summer days, he said, can also be a deterrent for businesses.

“The hardest part is finding space where someone will allocate enough space for us to either construct one of the wooden bins like we have down in Murrells Inlet, or where we can park a trailer or some sort of receptacle where it can hold a little larger volume of shells,” he said. 

He hopes to expand the recycling efforts in Horry and Georgetown counties during the next shellfish season, which starts in October.

The last year has compounded the issue, since the shutdowns and pandemic meant that restaurants weren’t serving as many oysters. Community roasts were also canceled.

“Restaurants stopped serving everything, events stopped happening,” Hodges said. 

The SCDNR was on track to see a record number of shells recycled in 2020 before COVID-19 hit. If the pandemic hadn’t happened, Hodges estimates 35,000 bushels would have been recycled, an increase of 10% from the previous year.

South Carolina impacts

The SCORE program’s annual target is for coastal communities to donate about 50,000 bushels of shells a year. 

But with not enough shells donated, the SCDNR has to purchase shells from out of state. It’s a competitive market, Hodges said, because other states are trying to get their hands on them, as well.

This year, it’s looking to purchase about 18,000 bushels from outside of the state. Hodges said the state needs almost double that for projects that aren’t related to harvestable grounds, but can’t get the shells.

Depending on the supply and demand, the shells can range from $3.5 a bushel, to $6. Prices have risen as large shucking houses have decreased operations due to the pandemic because restaurants haven’t served as many oysters.

“It’s a very competitive market,” Hodges said.

If more were recycled, he said the funds used to purchase the shells would be spent on restoration efforts, like purchasing bins to collect more bushels. 

Hodges said it’s hard to know how many people are aware that oysters can and need to be recycled, but that he hears pretty frequently that people don’t know they can. People who aren’t from the coast, or who move to the area from other states, often aren’t aware. 

With the number of oyster restaurants and bars on the rise, more shells will likely be needed.

Hodges said people can get involved in recycling and planting efforts by volunteering with SCORE. If they’re at an oyster roast, they should encourage the host to recycle shells, stating that every bushel counts. The SCDNR is also working to get shell drop-off locations registered in Google Maps.