Oyster season in the Lowcountry means one thing, lots of oyster roasts and eating lots of oysters. Each year, this longstanding tradition is eagerly anticipated.
However, before anyone can enjoy an oyster, two critical steps are necessary; the oysters have to grow and be harvested. The traditional methods include letting them grow naturally along tidal and marsh banks in clusters and to harvest them when they are mature or growing them in cases that rest on the bottom of waterways, but a new method is quickly becoming popular.
OysterGro® is a relatively new concept in shell mariculture where native, single-select oysters can be grown in floating cages that are roped together in rows and anchored to the bottom of waterways. The floats are approximately 60 inches long, 40 inches wide and 20 inches high, and typically several hundred floating cages are roped together, which can span across several acres of open water. The floating cages are routinely flipped to prevent oyster fouling (which is when organisms colonize on the oyster), keep water flowing and promote growth. By using this method, single oysters grow faster and bigger, which is ideal for commercial oyster farmers and harvesters to sell to restaurants and individual clients to enjoy from September to April.
Where does the Charleston District fit into all this, aside from having several oyster-loving employees?
“Since OysterGro can impact waterways, a Corps permit is necessary,” said Tracy Sanders, biologist and project manager. “We have issued two permits, are currently reviewing another permit and are working with two potential applicants. It’s evident that this method is becoming more popular with oyster harvesters in South Carolina since it produces such big delicious single select oysters.”
For issued permits and pending permits, the District received comments during the public comment periods for those projects that included impacts to recreation, general navigation, aesthetics and marsh erosion. Other areas of concern are potential effects to sturgeon and sea turtles, which are endangered species, entangling themselves in the ropes, how to secure the equipment during hurricanes and abandonment of the floats and equipment.
“Similar to permits issued for typical construction projects on land, permits issued for OysterGro projects may include special conditions to address concerns that arise during the permit review process” said Sanders. “Examples of special conditions that may be added include requiring that the project area be marked with navigation signs, knotting the ropes a certain way to prevent entanglement and that the permittee follow their specific hurricane response plan that describes when and how the floats and equipment will be secured during a hurricane.”
Applicants must obtain authorization from three different agencies prior to installing OysterGro floats and equipment. Permits are required from the Corps, the Department of Health and Environmental Control’s Office of Ocean and Coastal Resource Management and the South Carolina Department of Natural Resources. While the permitting processes are separate, the Corps, OCRM and SCDNR work closely together during project review. In fact, it is recommended that applicants request a pre-application meeting with the Corps, OCRM and SCDNR to discuss the permitting process and potential issues that may be of concern by the permitting agencies prior to submittal of a permit application. The intent of the pre-applications meeting is it to provide the potential applicant with project specific information that can be used during the project planning stage and, ultimately, streamline the permitting process making it easier to apply.
The first issue a potential applicant may face is identifying a project location. Potential applicants should first contact SCDNR to determine which areas may be available for cultivating oysters. Contacting SCDNR first to determine potential project area availability is strongly recommended as any conflicts of use of project areas from a mariculture perspective could result in a delay in the Corps permitting process and may result in project relocation and redesign.
Once the permit has been issued, the OysterGro floats are subject to random compliance checks by the Corps to ensure they are meeting are all the special requirements. To learn more, you can call the District’s Regulatory Division at 843-329-8044.
Now that oyster season is upon us, it’s time to get your oyster knives ready!