On Sat. Oct. 3, as rain from a 1,000-year storm pummeled the Carolina coast, S.C. Department of Health and Environmental Control issued a statement: oyster and clam harvesting in St. Helena Sound, the Coosaw River, and the mouth of Bull River was closed. The announcement came just two days after the start of the 2015-16 oyster season.
In an already wet fall, clammer David Belanger calls the financial cost of the closure huge.
“This has never happened in the state before. I’m guessing it’ll be closed for at least a month,” says Belanger. His estimate is as good as any. DHEC says the closure will remain in effect until water sampling indicates that bacteria levels are suitable for shellfish harvesting to resume. But with flooding in Columbia and beyond cascading into streams and rivers, the time it will take the water to filter out pollutants — oil, grease, vehicle coolant, pesticides, fertilizers, car soaps, garbage, pet waste, etc. — is difficult to predict.
“We just have to wait for the rivers to drop,” adds Belanger. “It’s going to be very painful.”
For others it’s equally dire. “It’s put me out of business,” says Charleston Oyster Company owner Jeff Spahr.
Spahr sells oysters to individuals as well as Tavern & Table and Fleet Landing and had just enough to supply the restaurants this weekend, but now finds himself biding his time until the precautionary closure is over to return to oystering.
“I’m doing odd jobs around the house,” he says. “You really can’t go out and cultivate the oysters right now, so I’ll put my crabpots in and start catching stone crabs and sell those to restaurants.”
Additional income from crabs won’t be enough to recoup the loss of oysters, however. Spahr estimates that if Belanger’s prediction is correct and shellfish harvesting is shutdown for a month, that’ll be a 20 percent loss from his overall harvest income.
For others, pre-planning paid off. While St. Jude Farms’ Charleston Salts, a variety the company debuted last year, are off the table due to their location in St. Helena Sound, oysterman Danny Hieronymus may have saved part of the company’s early oyster harvest.
“We harvested real strong foreseeing that this was gonna close,” says Hieronymus. “We’ve got wet storage, so that’s keeping a lot of inventory.” Wet storage allows harvested oysters to continue to purge while awaiting sale.
St. Jude also benefits from the extended region in which they harvest. While the DHEC closure impacts oyster areas as far south as the Bull River, St. Jude has two leases near Beaufort, which hasn’t been closed down. “We had pre-orders for 200 pecks [a fourth of a bushel] and those are going out on Thursday,” he adds.
But it’s safe to say St. Jude can’t supply all of the local restaurants who sell Lowcountry oysters. Adjustments will have to be made. Leon’s Oyster Shop menu will be impacted. The Upper King restaurant sells St. Jude’s Charleston Salts. Now, Leon’s owner Brooks Reitz says the restaurant’s mixed oyster platters will be filled with East Coast and Gulf oysters.
“While we will have to forego the local/regional option that we always serve, we will continue to source from New York, Massachusetts, and Maine,” Reitz says.
For FIG and The Ordinary’s chef and owner Mike Lata filling the void of Belanger Caper’s Blades typically means looking north, but Lata says, “Everybody North of Edisto even up to Virginia is going to be closed for two to four weeks.”
That being the case, Lata hopes to offer customers a chance to taste something new. “There’s a company out of Bluffton I’ve been wanting to get into business with,” he says. “I like their oysters from the May River, so maybe we’ll use this opportunity to do something with those guys.”
Fortunately for Belanger, that doesn’t mean his oysters will be permanently replaced. “I have a relationship with Clammer Dave that goes back years,” says Lata. “I’d like to think it can withstand a natural disaster.”
It’s remains to be seen if other clammers and oystermen are so lucky. Spahr remains optimistic. Joaquin was fierce, but he’s quick to remind people it was no Hugo.
“I was on a shrimp boat right out of high school when Hugo hit. Our boat sank. It was five years until we recovered from that,” Spahr says.
Spahr believes Charleston fishermen will recover this time as well. “Fishing is feast or famine and you’re always presented with things from the weather,” he says. “We can overcome it.”
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