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Still, more can be done to restore their populations. Michael Hodges, lead field biologist for the South Carolina Oyster Restoration and Enhancement SCORE program, collaborates with volunteers to bag empty shells and deploy them along shorelines to attract oyster larvae and restore reefs. Photo by Grace Beahm. Share This Article. Knauss Fellows From S. Schools Selected.

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The only sound is the wake lapping on shore. The city marina is across the river, but on a Monday morning under a gray-and-black sky threatening rain, this stretch of Charleston Harbor is still sleeping. Hodges has landed the foot aluminum boat on a mound of loose, dead oyster shells along the shore. He steps into the shallows, his rubber boots crunching on the bottom, and then reaches down, grabs a shell, shakes out salt water, and holds it like a cup.

Attached a few weeks ago. Recycle it. A shell is the best substrate, or foundation, to attract swimming young oysters looking for permanent homes.

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Hodges is the lead field biologist for several oyster-restoration efforts, including the influential South Carolina Oyster Restoration and Enhancement program SCOREone of the first statewide, all-volunteer efforts outside the Chesapeake Bay. SinceHodges and his team have planted about 34, bushels of loose shell annually on 40 sites—14 acres total—for the four restoration projects. So far, measurements show that empty shell planted in is attracting oyster larvae, and reefs are growing substantially larger.

The harbor is polluted, and fishermen—recreational and commercial—harvest shellfish only from clean waters. Instead, harbor oysters are being restored for their ecological services. Oyster reefs filter large volumes of water, help stabilize salt marsh fringing shorelines, and provide essential habitat for many species of finfish and invertebrates such as crab and shrimp.

Habitat Creation. The S. Department of Natural Resources sprays recycled oyster shells onto estuarine shorelines to rebuild oyster populations. Photo: S. Department of Natural Resources. Restoration scientists hope that more coastal residents and visitors will learn to see oysters in a broader way—not only as food but as keystone species in healthy estuaries and salt-marsh ecosystems. The Eastern oyster Crassostrea virginica is a hardy, adaptable species. During the last ice age, the Eastern oyster grew along stretches of the North American coastline and migrated inland along with the rising sea level.

Various oyster species once flourished in temperate estuaries around the world where reefs were the dominant ecological feature. Now most of those reefs are gone. Now, as a Sea Grant researcher, he is studying the potential for producing single, more valuable triploid oysters having an extra set of chromosomes with improved meat quality and superior growth. Boze Hancock, a marine restoration scientist with The Nature Conservancy, says that South Carolina is one of the few places in the world where oysters are in reasonable abundance and in good fishing condition.

Even so, wakes from boats, ships, and jet skis are eroding South Carolina salt-marsh shorelines and damaging reefs. Runoff pollution continues to threaten oyster habitats. Dredging formoreover, removes marsh-building sediments and deepens waterway channels, increasing stream flows that cause more shoreline erosion.

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South Carolina estuaries are blessed with vast s of oyster larvae but far too little shell and other substrate for them to settle on. Oyster larvae attach to dock pilings, concrete, broken pottery, glass bottles, floating tree limbs—you name it. If the surface is hard and clean, larvae will settle on it. South Carolina shucking houses and canneries once held gigantic mounds of empty shell to be planted along shorelines for reef substrate.

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But the last cannery in the state closed inand just one shucking house, the Bluffton Oyster Company, is still in operation. The company stockpiles shell on-site to replant on locally leased bottoms. Most of that price tag is for diesel fuel. Each oyster castle, weighing 25 pounds, consists of a four-walled block made of limestone, concrete, silica, and crushed oyster shells. These structures have attracted large s of oyster larvae, which are building taller reefs more quickly, providing shoreline protection from boat wakes and attracting a higher diversity and greater abundance of juvenile fish such as red drum and spotted sea trout.

Hodges pushes the boat off the Ashley River shoreline and steers north, passing the Battery, into the Cooper River. He rides under the Ravenel Bridge against an ebbing tide, crosses the ship channel to the Wando River, and turns into Hobcaw Creek where handsome homes and boat docks line one shore, and salt marshes, mud flats, and small reefs cover the opposite shore.

Oysters are subtidal in estuaries from Chesapeake Bay to New England, where they spend their lives underwater. South Carolina has nearly 5, acres of oyster beds growing along fringes of salt marsh bordering creeks and rivers, and along isolated mud flats, according to recent estimates from an almost decade-long survey of oyster reefs by SCDNR scientists. South Carolina once had considerable populations of subtidal oysters, most of which have been lost because of siltation, overharvesting, and other impacts. In Hobcaw Creek, the sun briefly comes out, and Hodges points to a restored reef along a muddy shoreline.

Young, bright-green shoots of cordgrass Spartina alterniflora have colonized pluff mud immediately behind the reef. When a high tide washes over a reef, some suspended sediments fall out and sink onto the muddy bottom behind it. Later, when the tide lowers, the reef blocks some of these sediments from washing back into the creek. Over time, sediments can accumulate behind the reef like a snowdrift against a wall. As more sediments fall out, they firm up the shoreline in some cases.

Finally, the fringing marsh sends out Spartina rhizomes—plant stems that spread underground—to colonize the site. The growing reef functions as a breakwater for the salt-marsh fringe, protecting it from waves, tidal currents, and boat wakes and allowing the marsh to build more habitat.

When a South Carolina estuary turns balmy in May, a single mature female oyster will release millions of microscopic eggs, and a mature male discharges countless sperm. Casanova claimed that he ate as many as 60 a day. Fertilized eggs quickly develop into swimming larvae that feed on microscopic algae in the water column.

During this swimming period, which typically lasts two-to-three weeks, winds, tides, and currents carry larvae large distances into estuaries where they can colonize existing reefs or start new ones on dead shells or other substrate. Fish and other animals eat countless larvae, so even under pristine conditions only a tiny percentage of them survive. Each larva grows a single, sturdy appendage—a foot—while building up a store of sticky, cement-like material.

A larva must find a permanent place to land or it will die within a few days; its window of opportunity is short, and closes quickly. If the larva lands on a soft, mucky bottom, it will be smothered; a paper-thin layer of sediment becomes a burial ground. If a larva lands on a hard but fouled or slimy surface, it can be washed away, failing to cement itself to the underlying substrate.

The lucky larva, though, finds a just-right substrate—such as an oyster shell—and attaches using its sticky foot. An oyster larva will attach to any hard, clean surface but strongly prefers an oyster or whelk shell. As the spat grows larger, it must build armor against predators such as starfish, blue crabs, sponge borers, and a few fish species with very strong jaws.

A young oyster has attached itself to the smooth surface of an empty oyster shell. The oyster diverts undigested materials—called pseudo-feces—and mixes them with mucus and feces to form long strings of nutrient-rich goop. Invertebrates and juvenile fish gobble up this goop, and the leftovers dribble onto bottom sediments where they are processed by bacteria and released through the water column into the atmosphere as inert nitrogen gas.

In this way, the oyster helps remove excess nutrients from the estuary. One mature oyster can filter and help remove excess nutrients from 1. An oyster can start reproducing as early as four-to-six months after settlement, and it can grow to a very large size and potentially live for decades.

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In a mature reef, however, generations of young oysters settle on shells of older oysters, eventually blocking their access to food and oxygen. Older oysters smother or starve beneath the growing colony. Shrimp, blue crabs, gobies, blennies, and other creatures look for food and shelter in the reef. Gag grouper use oyster reefs during their juvenile stage for a temporary refuge.

Studies also show that various juvenile finfish populations are more abundant in waters near oyster reefs compared with waters near mud flats.

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