MURRELLS INLET — Wearing gloves and rubber boots, more than a dozen volunteers form two lines to load the boat.
They’ll pass 200 mesh bags filled with up to 40 pounds of oyster shells and carry another 18 wire boxes containing more shells, about 6,000 pounds in all. In half an hour, they’ll do it all again while standing on wooden boards to avoid sinking in the soft mud. They’ll leave bags and boxes stacked at the edge of eroding marshland.
The idea behind creating an oyster reef is simple. The work is not.
Places where oysters can thrive have been disappearing for decades. One study said 85 percent of their habitat has been lost in the past 150 years. Murrells Inlet — a town 25 minutes south of Myrtle Beach known for its seafood — is home to one of the most imperiled salt marshes in South Carolina because of sea level rise, nearby development and its small size. Murrells Inlet has lost 80 percent of its marsh since 1994, said Michael Hodges, an oyster restoration biologist with the state Department of Natural Resources.
For the past 20 years, DNR has been collecting oyster shells and strategically placing them back in the water in spots where new oysters will grow. They’ve hauled oyster shells to more than 120 sites, mainly through the agency’s South Carolina Oyster Restoration and Enhancement (SCORE) program.
Other reef building projects were held last week in Charleston and Edisto Island. More are planned this summer in those locations as well as on Hilton Head Island.
Hodges is out on the water enough to eyeball the spots most in need of protection. He identified today’s location, a patch of dirt and grass facing Garden City Beach, “just riding by and seeing it get smaller and smaller.”
On the short boat ride to the site, Jet Skis and boats speed by. Water from their wake pounds the edge of the marshland. Another manmade reef nearby was covered in rows of new oysters that had latched to it. These shells, and the oyster that will grow on top of them, will deflect some of that wave energy, reducing erosion. They’ll do the same after storms to slow water trying to push past the marsh into roads and homes. A single oyster can also filter up to 50 gallons of water a day.
Oyster larvae travel in the water until they find a hard surface to grow on, preferably other oysters. They spawn in the summer, making this sunny June day ideal timing. This reef, 107 feet long at the end of the afternoon, will provide enough space for more than 100,000 new oysters.
“They like structure. That structure brings life,” Hodges said.
Thriving life in these marshes is intertwined with the livelihood of Murrells Inlet, often called the Seafood Capital of South Carolina. Seafood restaurants in town — among them more than a dozen clustered along a quarter-mile stretch of US Highway 17 — can bring in $40 million in sales, one Coastal Carolina University study stated.
“Eighty-five percent of the seafood we eat relies on estuaries,” said Rachel Hawes, land, water and wildlife project manager for the Coastal Conservation League. “If we don’t have healthy ecosystems in the estuaries, we’d see a big drop-off in the availability and quality of seafood.”
The state has a recycling program to collect oyster shells from restaurants or backyard oyster roasts. But last summer, DNR estimated only about 10 percent of oysters eaten in South Carolina are recycled. The shells are becoming more scarce and more expensive to buy from other states.
Cindy Johnson of Pawleys Island, who loves the taste of oysters and volunteers when she can, was among the group that loaded and unloaded the shells on June 27. She’s previously helped protect hatching loggerhead turtles on North Carolina beaches. This was decidedly harder work. Johnson, like others, at times found boots sinking so deep into the mud that she struggled to move her feet.
“I really admire the people who do this and wanted to be a part of it,” Johnson said. “I think we all need to do something to protect our coast and our oysters.”
Reach John Ramsey at 843-906-9351. Follow him on Twitter @johnwramsey.