Photo by Janet Wood
During the last weekend in April, a group of volunteers laid the final necessary pieces into Withers Estuary to reintroduce oysters to their native ecosystem. The project is part of the Withers Estuary Community Collaborative (WECC), a partnership of leaders in Myrtle Beach, South Carolina. The organization focuses on find ways to synergistically protect human and ecological networks by creating community-based solutions for preservation/restoration of local ecosystems. The oyster restoration project is the first of many steps to accomplish this goal. Withers Estuary is located in Myrtle Beach, South Carolina. The estuary is about 4.2 square miles. It is surrounded by hotels, parking, an international jetport, roadways, campgrounds, commercial buildings, amusement parks, and industrial facilities. I’m the lead coordinator for WECC. Two other important members of the collaborative are Keith Walters and Janet Woods. Dr. Walters brings an expertise of marine ecology to the project. He is an Associate Professor in the Department of Marine Science at Coastal Carolina University. Ms. Wood is with the Myrtle Beach Public Works Department.
Then and Now
Before 1970, Withers Swash was a clean, beautiful tidal basin. Children waded and learned to swim in the basin, chasing birds that pecked for food in the luxuriant march grasses. The swash teemed with fish, shrimp, and crabs. Today, the waters in the estuary are contaminated and trash-laden, its waters dark and murky. When I first started working with community members to find creative ways to restore the estuary, I found that there is a long standing desire within the city to return the estuary to its once natural state.
The estuary is home to eco-zones that support unique endemic aquatic, territorial, and avian species. The flora and fauna of the estuary are critically stressed. Four species present within the target area are listed as threatened or endangered on the South Carolina and Federal endangered species list. Many services come from natural ecosystems such as purification of air and water, detoxification and decomposition of waste, regulation of micro-climates and regeneration of soil fertility. If unchecked, current pressures on the estuary could cause the remaining biodiversity to disappear within the next twenty years.
Benefits of Shellfish
The oysters are a natural water filter and a gauge of the water's health. One oyster can filter 4 gallons of water per hour – making a reef (or bed) of a 1000 or 2000 oysters a huge natural way to remove pollutants from the water column. The reconstructed bed is made with bags of oyster shell donated by local restaurants. The bags are stacked on top of each other in a rectangle of around 10 feet long by 5 feet wide by 2 feet high. As the bags are placed in the water, it represents a year and a half of preparation by the collaborative. The estuary needed to be tested for ample amounts of oyster spat and salinity. Dr. Walters’ lab has been involved in the preliminary study to evaluate the possibility of the reef restoration. He has completed similar projects in two adjacent estuaries; Murrells Inlet, a typical ocean-dominated estuary, and White Point Estuary, a localized estuary just like to Withers.
Graphic by Dr. Keith Walters
Ready, Set, Anchor
Over the next few months, oyster larvae will find their way onto the reef, anchor and begin to grow. Oyster reef restoration provides a direct method for citizens to get involved in the husbandry of natural resources. The connection to nature is extremely important as the Myrtle Beach becomes increasing urbanized. As the project shows success with improving the water quality, other reefs will be built.
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