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CCU Atheneum: Students prepare bundles of recycled oyster shells to rebuild oyster reefs.
Students prepare bundles of recycled oyster shells to rebuild oyster reefs.

Shucking and Reviving at CCU

by Derrick Bracey
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Coastal Carolina University’s marine biology professor Keith Walters makes oyster shells sound interesting. He’s organizing an oyster shell recycling campaign, as part of a restoration of the wetlands project along the coast of South Carolina. And you need only take a drive north to the marshes of Cherry Grove or south to the marshes of Murrells Inlet or due east to the swashes of Myrtle Beach to see the unique ecosystems he hopes to protect – the herons hunting the fish, who are eating the smaller fish, to the crabs scavenging for food, to the oysters that congregate into beds that form the reefs that are the essential habitat in the wetlands.

These reefs are not only these species’ home; they also filter the water to improve the water quality, and they control erosion by acting as natural breakwaters along the shoreline. But as the Grand Strand gets bigger and more developed, these reefs are in danger of disappearing. Some are already gone, along with the small world of animals and organisms that depend on them.

Walters has worn many hats since his arrival at CCU in 2001. He’s been chair of the marine science department and helped develop the graduate program in coastal marine and wetland studies. Now, with funding by NOAA and FishAmerica, he’s setting up a base of operations on the CCU campus for this recycling and restoration project that will benefit the entire Grand Strand.

But, Walters explains, this is not an overnight project; it has to be done in steps.

Step one: Ramp Up

“We’re just getting off the ground. We’ve gotten recycle bins, and we’re getting out to restaurants,” Walters says. “I’ve set a goal for 20 tons of shell by April.” That’s a pretty daunting marker for the first wave of this operation, but, “We’re already in the process of arranging with Fisher Recycling the collection from restaurants and drop-offs bins provided by the DNR (South Carolina Department of Natural Resources).”

Walters explains the partnership with Fisher Recycling as essential to develop a sustainable program. “You get the greatest amounts from restaurants. It’s the heaviest waste in their waste stream,” Walters says. “It’s feasible for us to make it beneficial and economical to these restaurants, and we’re working on getting an additional drop-off point at the CCU campus to fill the need inland. We’ll take bare shells, cooked, whatever.”

Walters knows these programs are doable. “These types of projects have proved fairly successful in other areas,” he says. “Charleston already has a successful program, and North Carolina’s system with the NCCF (North Carolina Coastal Federation) is successful as well.”

But 20 tons of shell and a sustainable recycling program is only the beginning.

Step Two: Rebuild

After a steady stream of recycled shell is established, the shells are quarantined for a month to make sure they’re free of diseases or contamination, then the dirty work of getting them back in the water begins. “The goal is to restore and construct small reefs in a half dozen of our tidal creeks and swashes, as far north as Hog Inlet and south to Winyah Bay.”

Walters says, “At one time, people fished in the swashes of White Point, Singleton and Withers. There was a viable oyster population. But now, they’re polluted and the natural habitat is depleted.”

It’s a pretty complicated process, but it breaks down to this – oysters like other oysters. Oyster babies, known as spat, need a rough surface to attach to and settle on. Commercial and recreational fishing takes this surface away, so oysters go away, and other sea life goes away. The reefs reduce in numbers, and the coasts are less stable. “Hopefully, these species start to come back by rebuilding and sometimes transplanting their habitat,” Walters says. “But here’s the really cool part.”

Step Three: Research

As the number of these intertidal reefs swell, so will the other species that are attracted to them. “These local reefs are unique,” Walters says. “They offer a huge diversity in species. Worms, shrimp, other bivalves, snails, blue crabs, fish, the list goes on and on.”

Walters says, “The number of bivalves or shelled mollusks is 85 percent below the historical averages.” These three steps may be able to bring this figure out of its trough.

“We will take samples before and after to find out what the reef provides to its surroundings,” Walters says. “Yes, they limit and prevent erosion. But to begin with, we’re more interested in what they provide to their habitat.” Walters is trying to get in front of the problem. “Nature will take a lot of insults before you start seeing major effects,” he says. “What we have here is not as bad as a lot of other places, but we’re trying to prevent it from sliding.”

Step Four: Reach Out

Teaming up with NOAA and FishAmerica, Walters and his CCU oyster army began in late February and will be working hard gathering, taking samples, building and restoring until the end of summer. “We’re hoping to set up internships for restoration and recycling. There’s a definite call for professionals in the field, and more will be needed,” he says. “We’ll use graduate students, undergrads and interns in all phases.”

Walters also has support from his professional peers who work in the fisheries of Charleston and Louisiana. And in the past, he’s had a tide of volunteers roll in to help. “We’ve worked with Withers Community Collaborative, Myrtle Beach Public Works, the Surfrider Foundation, CCU Sustainability and DNR SCORE,” he says.

This is a community willing to roll up its sleeves and get dirty for South Carolina’s coast. “We’ve even worked with Boy Scouts to earn merit badges by helping out,” Walters says. “And we will be seeking even more collaborations for this upcoming project.”

To find out how to help or for more information, contact Walters at 843-349-2477 or kwalt@coastal.edu.

 

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