Every autumn, when the heat and humidity of summer finally start slipping away, I have only one thing on my mind — finagling open that stubborn shell and sucking down the first salty, slimy, plump oyster of the season. You know what that’s like, the blissful feeling of reuniting your taste buds with Charleston’s favorite shellfish, but what you may not know is that, while Charlestonians attend an absurd number of oyster roasts between the months October and February, the oyster is actually endangered.

This summer the Nature Conservancy released a comprehensive global report on the state of shellfish and concluded that “oyster reefs are the most severely impacted marine habitat on the planet.” Globally, 85 percent of the reefs have been lost. Bill and Barbara may not have to cancel their annual beer and oysters bash, but we’ve got bigger problems.

According to the report, oyster reefs are functionally extinct in many parts of North America, Australia, and Europe, which has a huge impact on the surrounding environment and ecosystem. Oysters act as natural water filters, providing food and habitats for fish, crabs, and birds, and providing a buffer to prevent shoreline erosion and help maintain coastal marshes. In response The Nature Conservancy and its local chapters are acting to protect and conserve the oyster population.

South Carolina is on top of their game (on this front at least). The South Carolina chapter of the Conservancy partnered with the Department of Natural Resources (DNR) in the spring to execute a successful restoration program in Tibbin Creek near McClellanville. The Conservancy is also working with DNR to study creating oyster reefs in areas in need, identify alternative materials as potential substrate for the oysters, increase oyster shell recycling throughout the state, and push for state legislation to support conservation efforts.

South Carolina was the first state to start this kind of oyster restoration program nearly a decade ago. Andy Jennings, the Oyster Shell Recycling and Planting Program Coordinator at the DNR, says, “The marsh wouldn’t be what it is without them.” Since 2000, the program has recycled 92,203 US bushels of oysters and planted 272,211, which helps counteract the effects of overdevelopment, poor water quality, and destructive fishing practices that harm the oyster habitats.

So how can you help? Good old-fashioned recycling of course. Recycled oyster shells can be returned to their estuaries to help attract baby oysters (scientifically referred to as “spat,” which are free-swimming larvae).

“The good thing about oyster shells,” says Jennings, “is that they are already out there anyway, no one can object to them because they are beautiful, and the oysters prefer them.”

Jennings and his team (of just two other guys) have set up 16 oyster drop-off sites around the state where people and restaurants can dump their shells post-shucking. For more information and directions to a site in your area check out http://saltwaterfishing.sc.gov/oyster.html. Forget “save the whales,” take up a local cause and save the oysters.