The South Carolina coastline is rich with vast tidal areas and natural oyster reefs that along with an extended spawning season converge to produce a nurturing habitat for producing abundant clusters of succulent oysters. As the longstanding adage states “the world is your oyster” and if your desire is to sit back, relax and savor some of the best of them then you can satisfy your heart’s desire at the cornucopia of mom-n-pop restaurants, and oyster roast events offered up and down the shore. Because the state's riverbanks, salt marshes and creeks are rich with Crassostrea virginica, also referred to as the Wellfleet oyster, Atlantic oyster, Virginia oyster, American oyster and the Eastern oyster that is a species of true oyster that’s native to the eastern seaboard and Gulf of Mexico coastline in North America. Moreover, they are also farmed in Puget Sound, Washington where they’re known as Totten Inlet Virginica. Additionally, Blue Points or Quonset Points are of the same species however they are named for the specific locations where they are harvested. And historically, Gulf oysters were also named after specific bays, but distributors now group them all into the same category.
Some fascinating facts concerning oysters is that they change their gender over the course of their life spans beginning as males but usually morph into females, and their shapes vary dependent mainly on the number of them that crowd together in a bed as they develop because when an oyster attaches to a bed it cultivates and forms around the surface it attaches to as well as the other oysters surrounding it.
Besides tasting delectable, consuming them is healthy for you too because they are high in the nutrients that the body requires such as protein, and essential vitamins and minerals, including zinc, calcium, magnesium, protein, selenium, and vitamin A. They also contain particularly high levels of vitamin B12, iron and monounsaturated fat, the “healthy” kind of fat that is also found in olive oil; and yet they are low in calories and fat overall. Also, as with fine wines, oysters have a variety of primary flavor profiles that can be characterized as briny, buttery, sweet, metallic or mild. But true oyster connoisseurs can further break down these flavors into melon, cucumber, mushroom and others too. So, try considering this tidbit of oyster wisdom the next time you try some on the half shell. And, whether you procure a bushel basket from an oyster farm or one of the many fresh seafood outlets in the area, enjoy them in a restaurant, or set out to harvest them yourself, each locally sourced oyster conveys a mouthful of South Carolina flavor and history.
Besides providing a tasty meal these little bivalves offer the opportunity for a family oriented fun day outside in the open-air at the many oyster roasts that are traditional along the coast of South Carolina, and the shellfish are a significant part of the area’s “Low Country” history. They have been consumed by humans since prehistoric times and cultivated at least since the times of the Roman Empire. An ancient Roman merchant Sergius Orata was the first person known to cultivate oysters by building a system that could control water levels. And, he was also was an inventor and hydraulic engineer who is credited with inventing the hypocaust method of heating a building and supplying heated water for bathing.
Most SC locals know that if the month of the year has the letter “R” in it then the oyster season is upon them, as October through April is the typical oyster season when recreational and commercial oyster harvesting is open to approximately 5,000 acres of beds. About half of that is leased to commercial operations and the remainder is reserved for and managed by the South Carolina Department of Natural Resources (SCDNR) for recreational harvesters with the only requirement being possessing of a valid saltwater fishing license and a genuine desire to get one’s self muddied from head to toe
Sadly, the number of beds is declining worldwide with 85% of them being devastated during the last century. In fact, New York City was once renowned as the “Oyster Capital of the World” with the Hudson and East rivers, and the waters of Long Island virtually teaming with oyster beds that accounted for roughly half the world’s oyster population of the time. And, their popularity especially among the well-to-do attracted people from all over America and abroad to experience the opportunity to suck down the tasty little morsels in the bars and eateries of Manhattan, Long Island, Sheepshead Bay in Brooklyn and City Island. But, sadly, as is true with so many other natural resources, over harvesting and industrial pollution forced the decline and eventually the total extinction of the beds. And, South Carolina has suffered the loss of about 1/3 of its beds since the early 1900s.
Currently, due to in-state shortages South Carolina purchases oyster shells from out of state processors through the South Carolina Oyster Restoration and Enhancement Program (SCORE) to be utilized for the cultivation and restoration of its beds. And because oysters are a harvestable and renewable resource, tens of thousands of them are taken each year when they have reached a mature size and age of around three years old. An adult mollusk can filter up to 2.5 gallons of water per hour equal to 50 gallons a day, and a larger healthy one may clean as much as four gallons of water daily while sieving it in through their gills and consuming food like plankton in the process. As well, they can contribute to maintaining the balance of a marine ecosystem by reducing excess algae and sediment that can lead to hypoxia, low oxygen levels, which can cause other marine life to perish. The oyster population of Chesapeake Bay once had the capability to filter the entire water volume of the bay in just three days. Also, they shape reefs to provide a habitat for fish, shrimp, crabs and other water life and so are an essential part of any marine ecosystem they inhabit; there are more than 120 fish species that are attracted to the SC reefs including red drum, blue crabs, flounder, and shrimp. As well, the reefs act as natural breakwaters that absorb wave energy to protect marsh shorelines and aid to prevent erosion.
Well, don’t be too hopeful of discovering a pearl in one of the oysters because only one in 12,000 of them produce one. And although all oysters are capable of producing pearls, not the shiny and pretty ones of value. In fact, most of those types of pearl are harvested from an inedible species of oyster, and freshwater mussels too.
Oysters have a long history along the state’s seaboard as evidenced by shell middens that are mounds or deposits of shells and that are sometimes part of larger shell rings which are sites composed of multiple curved shell middens that completely or partially surround a clear space and are found throughout coastal SC. And, their existence is proof that sustenance harvesting of oysters and clams were a significant part of the Native American culture of the area. As well as providing food for the natives, shells were also used as crude tools and for trade too. Then, by the late 1800s, the European settlers began harvesting their own shellfish and transporting them both unshelled and shucked inland via wagon and rail to be sold. Later on, oyster demand increased when in the late 1890s canneries began to sprout up in Georgia and SC that initiated the steaming of them prior to canning to extend their shelf-life and permitting them to be shipped nationwide. Consequently, 95% of oysters harvested in SC during the 20th century were destined for canning. However, by the late 1940s, the onset of WWII resulted in serious labor shortages that resulted in the closure of most of the canneries, and the industry has never recovered. So currently the intertidal harvesting of SC oysters is mostly earmarked for local roasts and restaurants with the average yearly harvest being approximately 100,000 bushels per annum for most of the recent years past.
Also, during the 1800s, the state government began to manage the shellfish industry and initiated the leasing of areas to commercial harvesters, then in the later 1880s and 1890s oyster “landing data” began to be collected and compiled. The industry is managed by the SCDNR Marine Resources Division along with the South Carolina Department of Health and Environmental Control (SCDHEC) that is responsible for human health and public safety. They regularly sample and analyze shellfish habitats to determine bacteria concentrations and have the authority to close down harvesting if bacteria levels rise above safe limits. Shellfish management programs are essential to the health of the beds, human health and safety, and to be able to sustain a healthy population for the generations to come. Shellfish is one of the most fragile elements of the local ecosystem and economy, as well as a natural food source and their restoration efforts are spear-headed by the SCDNR that is dedicated to the preservation and ongoing improvement of healthy beds. Along with over harvesting some other threats are habitat destruction, and pollution. As well, boat wakes can damage reefs, storm water runoff has a negative effect on marsh salinity levels, and trash and debris reduce water flow while other pollutants hamper water quality. Too, population growth results in building development that increases storm water runoff that has a damaging impact on the beds.
The South Carolina oyster farmers take great pride in their product and lay claim to raising and harvesting the tastiest oysters available anywhere. And their swagger is well deserved because the word among oyster purveyors is that, thanks to recent advances in aquaculture techniques and environmental conditions the southeast is on the fast track to becoming the "Napa Valley" of the oyster trade; a trend that is reflected by the rising demand for South Carolina oysters, with many farms routinely selling out their entire harvest.
So, whether your idea of the perfect oyster is enjoying them fried on a platter, roasted in a bucket, or naked and raw on a half-shell, oyster nirvana awaits you in South Carolina. So, come on down. I’ll be a waiting for y’all.