What it takes to harvest Charleston oysters

Early on the coldest mornings, Jodie Holder dons neoprene waders and chunky rubber boots. In her gloved right hand she holds a hammer. His left hand is encased in a heavy chainmail glove.
Holder harvests oysters and is part of the backstory most of us never think about when sucking up our succulent bivalves.

Jodie Holder treads lightly along the fluffy mud to avoid sinking | Photos provided

Holder, who works with her partner Terrell Brown of Brown’s Oyster Supply on James Island, said she heads out every morning during oyster season – October through May – on a 17ft aluminum boat filled with of colorful hard plastic baskets for harvesting. The boat heads towards the body of water assigned to the company, in which it was acquired due to the length of time Brown’s father harvested oysters.

“Once you get to the beautiful oyster reef, you have to get off the boat,” Holder said. “This is where it gets difficult. Mud pluff is like quicksand. You crawl around a bit, balancing your weight with the baskets.

“You have to have exactly the right boot size. If it’s too small, it’s uncomfortable. If it’s too big, your foot goes down and when it comes up, the boot stays down. I was stuck up to my armpits in the thing and two men had to pull me out by my elbows. It was terrifying.

Terrell Brown marvels at the surrounding landscape while oyster farming | Photo provided

Once oysters large enough to harvest – three inches by law – are located, the hammer is used to knock off a group’s favorite oysters. The group of discarded shells is left in place by regulations and will become the home for future generations of oysters.

“Once you have this big delicious bunch, you think, ‘Man, I was on the meat today! You put it in your cart and do it for the next three to four hours. My goal is to harvest 400 pounds of oysters per day. As the waters rise, the boat rises and your boat is filled with oysters, and there is not even a place for us to sit.

Oyster is hard work
“It’s physically the hardest job I’ve ever done in my life,” Holder said. “Having wet hands when it’s cold and going fast on a boat is quite painful. My hands just hurt, or if you puncture your thigh boots and your “tightness” is compromised, you’ll be cold by the end of the day.
Still, she says, “having heavenly 360-degree views is like being invited to an awe-inspiring nature feast.”

Communing with nature is just one of the reasons Trey McMillan started his Lowcountry Oyster Company. He saw an oyster farm in the Chesapeake Bay and thought, at age 30, it was time to end the professional fishing lifestyle that kept him away from his family for nine months a year. In 2017, he created the company.

Lowcountry Oyster Company Offers Oysters Year-Round Using Its Own Oyster Farming Methods | Lawson’s photograph

Unlike wild-harvested adult oysters, McMillan buys seed oysters or microscopic baby oysters and grows them himself in hard plastic cages that remain submerged in the waters off the Ashepoo River south of Charleston. Every spring and fall, a new cycle of baby oysters begins. As the oysters grow, they are removed from the cages and tumbled every six to eight weeks in a long cylinder with holes of varying sizes that sort the oysters by size and strengthen the shells until they are about a year old and ready for the market.

Because McMillan’s oysters stay submerged even in the warmest months, it allows him to sell year-round. (The reason you are told not to eat oysters in the summer months is because of a deadly bacteria that grows on uncovered oysters during low tides in warm months; McMillan oysters don’t have this problem.) It also allows it to sell beautifully – from single-shaped oysters to restaurants looking to showcase a perfect, raw or Rockefeller half-shell oyster.

Aerial view of Lowcountry Oyster Company oyster cages | Lawson’s photograph

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. It also sells directly to consumers.

Complaints of excessive regulation
You might think oyster farming is the easiest way to harvest oysters compared to the harsh conditions described by Holder, but McMillan argued that his company is constantly battling what he calls over-regulation.

“There is a hatchery in the state. It’s privately owned and he doesn’t sell seed, so we have to get out of state,” McMillan said.

And that’s where the problem comes in.

Ben Dyar, who manages the shellfish section for the SC Department of Natural Resources (SCDNR), is sensitive to McMillan’s woes, but said his job is to balance the needs of the industry with the protection of the natural resources of the ‘State. The Office of Fisheries Management within the SCDNR regulates the more than 5,000 acres of mapped oyster beds, some of which are intended for commercial harvesting by wild fishers and farmers.

“We use scientific information,” Dyar said. “Our biggest concern is with oyster diseases, as we don’t want to bring in anything that our wild populations aren’t used to. If they wish, they can buy from a hatchery that has a closed water system that filters out all pathogens (microorganisms that cause disease).

“We are a zero tolerance state, so there can be no pathogens in the seeds. Our Mariculture Coordinator will physically meet the person importing and review the imported batch before the oysters can be released.

McMillan, who buys in Virginia, says there are few hatcheries he can buy from and are unlikely to stop their process of establishing a closed water system just because South Carolina insists on it.

“They make it look like we’re renegades,” he said. “But we are the guardians of the sea! We tell them if there is something wrong, because we look at it every day! Not only that, we are the greatest [recycled] shell contributor to the state!

Oysters play a vital role in our ecosystem, so sustainability and longevity are key | Lawson’s photograph

Importance of oysters for SC
While there may be disagreements over 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 that requires everyone, including the public, who consumes these oysters to do their part,” Dyar said. “We need their help.

“Most people are familiar with half-shell oysters, but the fact that these oysters provide all of these beneficial things like erosion control, help filter and keep water clean, and help build our estuaries which are stormwater barriers?

Dyar added that most people don’t realize the legacy value of oysters in Palmetto State.
“They don’t know how important it is to recycle shells. It’s an industry with a wholesale value of $3 million, but that doesn’t take into account the cultural value.

“We have been harvesting oysters here for centuries. It is deeply rooted in our culture. But we have to protect what we have.

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About Debra D. Johnson

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