Early on the coldest mornings, Jodie Holder dons neoprene waders and big rubber boots. In her gloved right hand she holds a hammer. Her left hand is encased in a tough chain mail glove.
Holder harvests oysters and is part of the backstory most of us never think about as we slurp our succulent bivalves.
Holder, who works with partner Terrell Brown of Brown’s Oyster Supply on James Island, said she heads out every morning of oyster season — October through May — on a 17-foot aluminum boat filled with colorful hard plastic baskets for the harvest. The boat heads to the patch of water assigned to the company, one it has been grandfathered into because of how long Brown’s father has harvested oysters.
“Once you get to the beautiful oyster reef, you have to get out of the boat,” Holder said. “That’s when it gets hard. Pluff mud is like quicksand. You’re kind of crawling, balancing your weight with the baskets.
“You have to have exactly the right size boot. If it’s too small, it’s uncomfortable. If it’s too big, your foot goes down and when it comes back up, the boot stays down. I’ve gotten stuck up to my armpits in the stuff and two men had to pull me out by my elbows. It was terrifying.”
Once oysters large enough for harvest — three inches by law — are located, the hammer is used to knock the preferred oysters off of a cluster. The discarded cluster of shells is left in place by regulation and will become home to future oyster generations.
“Once you have this big delicious cluster, you think, ‘Man, I was on the meat today!’ You put it in your basket and do it for the next three to four hours. My goal is to pick 400 pounds of oysters a day. As the waters rise, the boat rises and your boat gets piled high with oysters, and there’s nowhere for us to even sit.”
Oystering is hard work
“It’s physically the hardest work I’ve ever done in life,” Holder said. “Having wet hands when it’s cold and going fast on a boat is pretty painful. My hands just ache, or if you puncture your waders and your ‘waterproofness’ is breached, you’ll be freezing by the end of the day.”
Still, she said, “having 360-degree heavenly views is like being invited to an awesome nature party.”
Communing with nature is just one of the reasons Trey McMillan started his Lowcountry Oyster Company. He saw an oyster farming operation on the Chesapeake Bay and thought, at age 30, that it was time to stop the lifestyle of a professional fisherman that took him away from family nine months a year. In 2017, he started the company.
Unlike the wild-harvested adult oysters, McMillan buys oyster seeds, or microscopic baby oysters, and grows them himself in hard plastic cages that stay submerged in the waters off the Ashepoo River south of Charleston. Each spring and fall, he starts with a new cycle of baby oysters. As the oysters grow, they are taken from the cages and tumbled every six to eight weeks in a long cylinder with varying sized holes that sort the oysters by size and strengthen the shells until they are about a year old and ready for market.
Because McMillan’s oysters stay submerged even during hotter months, it enables him to sell year-round. (The reason you’re told not to eat oysters during summer months is because of a deadly bacteria that grows on uncovered oysters during low tides in hot months; McMillan’s oysters don’t have that problem.) It also enables him to sell beautifully-shaped single oysters to restaurants looking to present a perfect half-shell of oyster, either raw or Rockefeller.
McMillan, who said he grows about 5 million oysters a year, sells his bounty to restaurants, oyster roasts, the Southeastern Wildlife Exposition and the Lowcountry Oyster Festival. He also sells directly to consumers.
Complaints of over-regulation
You might think that oyster farming is the easy way to collect oysters when compared with the harsh conditions Holder described, but McMillan argued his business is constantly fighting what he calls over-regulation.
“There is one hatchery in the state. It’s privately owned and he doesn’t sell seed, so we have to go out of state,” McMillan said.
And that’s where the issue comes in.
Ben Dyar, who manages the shellfish section for the S.C. Department of Natural Resources (SCDNR), is sympathetic to McMillan’s woes, but said his job is to balance the needs of the industry with protecting the state’s natural resources. The Office of Fisheries Management within the SCDNR regulates the more than 5,000 acres of mapped oyster beds, some of which are designated for commercial harvesting by wild harvesters and farmers.
“We use science-based information,” Dyar said. “Our biggest concern is oyster diseases because we don’t want to bring in anything our wild populations are not used to. If they want to, they can buy from a hatchery that has a closed water system that filters out all the pathogens (microorganisms that cause diseases).
“We are a zero-tolerance state, so there can’t be any pathogens in the seed whatsoever. Our mariculture coordinator will physically meet the person who imports and look at the batch imported before they can put the oysters in the water.”
McMillan, who buys from Virginia, argues there are few hatcheries he can buy from and those are not likely to stop their process to institute a closed-water system just because South Carolina insists on it.
“They make it sound like we are renegades,” he said. “But we’re the keeper of the sea! We tell them if there’s something wrong, because we’re looking at it every day! Not only that, we’re the biggest [recycled] shell contributor to the state!”
Importance of oysters to S.C.
While there might be disagreements on regulations and details, Holder, McMillan and Dyar all agreed on the importance of oysters to the state.
“Our industry and our resources for oysters are still at a point where they are healthy and can be sustainable, but it requires everyone, the public included, who consumes these oysters to do their part,” Dyar said. “We need their help.
“Most people are familiar with oysters on the half shell, but the fact that these oysters provide all these beneficial things like erosion control, helping to filter and keep the water clean and help build up our estuaries that are storm water barriers?”
Dyar added that most people didn’t realize the legacy value of oysters in the Palmetto State.
“They don’t know how important it is to recycle the shells. They are an industry that is $3 million in wholesale value, but that doesn’t take into account the cultural value.
“We’ve been harvesting oysters here for centuries. It’s deeply rooted in our culture. But we need to protect what we have.”
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