About 20 Horry-Georgetown Technical College students and volunteers labored in scorching temperatures Sept. 9 hauling and stacking heavy cement blocks to form castle-like structures up and down the beach. Watching sidelong from the water, curious dolphins had the best view as the building frenzy unfolded like a time-lapse movie. Could they know that these bleak gray structures would draw good eats to the area ─ and help keep their estuarine feeding grounds healthy?
Nature Conservancy Marine Restoration Specialist Joy Brown knows and couldn’t be happier about the building boom going on along the sandy shore of South Island in Winyah Bay.
“During high tide, these oyster castles will be completely underwater, providing a viable surface for baby oysters to attach to and make their permanent home,” Brown explained. “Once the ‘spat’ have landed, they will continue to grow over time and cement these blocks together. Ideally, you won’t even see any of the block surfaces in a couple of years. We began testing oyster castles last summer around Jeremy Island near McClellanville and observed oyster growth within just three months. This project is about three times larger than the Jeremy Island undertaking, and we are optimistic that it will be successful as well.”
Oyster reef restoration is a priority area for the Nature Conservancy (TNC), as 85 percent of the world’s oyster reefs have been lost in the past century. In addition to their star status on restaurant menus, oysters serve as remarkably efficient stewards of environmental cleanliness and estuarine health.
“A single oyster can filter pollution from as much as 50 gallons of water a day, improving water quality,” Brown said. “Oyster reefs also provide habitat and protection for hundreds of species of fish and animals. Furthermore, the reefs serve as natural buffers, helping protect people, property, and other habitats from storms and increases in sea level.”
“The Conservancy likes to tackle issues like water quality from all angles,” said Dr. Maria Whitehead, director for the Conservancy’s Winyah Bay and Pee Dee River Basin projects. “For example, TNC also works to protect forested wetland habitat to help filter pollutants and sediment. TNC has protected more than 60,000 acres in the Winyah Bay project area, much of which is forested wetland habitat along the rivers that feed the bay.”
Brown said the construction could not have been completed without the enthusiastic help of students from HGTC instructor Jim Westerhold’s forest and wildlife management classes. Westerhold was delighted to give his students a hands-on opportunity to contribute to a real-life, on-the-ground conservation project.
“The students were a little sore the following day but excited to play a part in conservation,” Westerhold said. “Many students have requested another lab in the area of the oyster castles so that we can revisit and look for results of our hard work. They like discussing the oyster castle project, which makes it easy for me to draw analogies to traditional wildlife management projects.”
The Winyah Bay project cost about $41,000, with $25,000 coming from a U.S. Fish and Wildlife coastal program grant, $5,000 from a Bunnelle Foundation grant, and $11,000 in match money from the Conservancy. Next month, Brown and her partners will plant native marsh grass, called Spartina, in and behind the castles to encourage sediment buildup, which can help combat coastal erosion.
To view pictures from the oyster castle installation at Winyah Bay, click here.
The Nature Conservancy is a leading conservation organization working around the world to protect ecologically important lands and waters for nature and people. The Conservancy and its more than 1 million members have protected nearly 120 million acres worldwide. Visit The Nature Conservancy on the Web at www.nature.org.
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