Fried, steamed or on the half-shell are just a few ways you can eat an oyster. As shellfish season opened on Thursday, it is important for local residents to know where and how they can enjoy them. Or, how they can harvest these Lowcountry species themselves.
Captain Rocky Magwood, owner of the Eleanor Paige shrimp boat on Shem Creek is prepared for a different shellfish-harvesting season than in year’s past. Shellfish season remains open through mid-May, but Magwood explained that this past spring they lost over a month’s worth of oyster sales due to COVID-19.
“I think we threw 107 bushels away because they’ve canceled all our parties at the end of the season,” Magwood said.
Magwood’s shrimp boat docks at Simmons Dock, which is owned by Bubba Simmons, the owner of Simmons Seafood. Magwood sells the oysters he harvests throughout the season to their seafood company.
Magwood said Simmons Seafood still paid for the bushels he’d already picked as the coronavirus pandemic affected the end of last season. He said they probably could have collected and sold 600 more bushels through April if the oyster roasts weren’t canceled.
“That’s a big chunk of change when you start talking about $20 a bushel,” Magwood said.
Magwood has a wholesale license and sells oysters to local restaurants in the area. However, in the spring, that was extremely limited once they shut down in response to the public health crisis.
He has not seen many of his friends over the past few months due to social distancing, but he is hopeful they will be able to get together for small oyster roasts at some point. He said he has been extremely cautious about the virus because he has a two-year-old son.
“If you want to get together, an oyster roast is a great way to have fun with some friends if you’re quarantining with somebody or if you know the person isn’t sick. The main thing is if you’re sick, stay home,” Magwood said. “Don’t go if you don’t feel good”
On average, he tries to pick 15 bushels of oysters a day during shellfish season. He leaves his house around 3:30 in the morning and takes his 25’ Carolina Skiff boat out to commercial beds where he spends the day picking oysters. He wears neoprene waders to stay dry and warm.
Magwood explained he does not just pick any oyster; instead, he spends time finding the largest singles and bigger clusters to sell to Simmons. Sometimes they get so many orders that Magwood has to pick daily although some weeks they will go every other day. To keep the oysters fresh, they put them in certified coolers where they stay good for up to 10 days. Magwood has some of these coolers at his house and said they have more at Simmons Seafood.
A pelican catches a ride as Captain Rocky Magwood heads home after a long day collecting oysters.
His best days of picking have resulted in 30 bushels of oysters. Magwood says his days are long and he often doesn’t get home until after 5 p.m.
“But it’s a good, hard, honest day’s work. If you do it, you love it because it’s fun to do,” he said. “It’s only as hard as you make it.”
Magwood said the busiest part of the season begins with Thanksgiving and lasts through the Super Bowl. But, he is not sure how many bushels he will pick this year since the South Carolina Department of Natural Resource (SCDNR) has closed some beds to manage their regrowth. Magwood said he has concerns about the number of beds that have been overpicked, and how many SCDNR will open this year.
“We have to maintain our stock of oysters or they’re going to go away and we won’t ever have them again,” Magwood said. “It’s a sad thing. I’ve been around oyster-picking since I was about eight years old. And I’ve done it in the winter all my life. All I ever do is work on a shrimp boat or I go to oystering; I don’t do anything else anymore.”
Magwood thinks that are likely to buy them this year.
“I think it comes down to more people are eating oysters and they like to eat our local cluster oysters because they have such a great flavor. There’s no comparison between a local oyster and a farm raised single. Even the ones that are raised here don’t taste as good as our wild oysters because they just grow on their own and they’re healthy.”
He explained that since the number of oyster beds are lower this year, finding supply can be harder and they have to do the best they can to preserve the local resource of shellfish.
“If there is going to be a year for limited beds to be open, this is probably a good year for it because there are already a lot of big oyster roasts that are going to be off the table this year due to physical distancing,” Simmons said.
Simmons said he thinks they will sell just as many, if not more oysters this year but instead of large events, it will be for 6-10 people to steam and enjoy in someone’s backyard.
“There will be a lot more of that I think,” he said.
Simmons said most people from the area knows what to expect at an oyster roast.
“And people that just moved here or haven’t been to an oyster roast like ours before — it doesn’t take them long to catch on,” he said. “I can remember oyster roasts in the backyard when I was 8 years old. Those were just part of what we know and love here.”
Biologist Ben Dyar, who is the head of SCDNR’s shellfish management program, said some more beds are closed this year due to assessment on shellfish grounds for recreational and commercial harvesting.
SCDNR does visual inspections as well as evaluate how many oysters are harvested the year prior to determine which areas they can open for an upcoming season.
“Closing those areas will allow them to regrow, and hopefully be able to be harvested the following season,” Dyar said. “We have really good recruitment in South Carolina, meaning that our oysters spawn very well and we have a lot of baby oysters in the water that grow really well.”
Dyar said the only way to grow the beds are either limit the number harvesters or open and close grounds. But since SCDNR does not have the statutory or legal authority to limit the number of harvesters, they have to restrict the oyster beds.
Dyar said they try not to factor in predictions of how many oysters will be consumed in a single year. Instead, they base their plans around how many oysters were harvested the past three years on average in an area.
Dyar said they strictly based their decisions on the sustainability of harvesting a bed.
Simmons has several commercial leases as a harvester and dealer. He said that he is responsible for working closely with SCDNR to make sure he reseeds his oyster beds appropriately by culling oysters in place or putting recycled shells on the banks for new organisms to grow on.
Dyar explains that culling in place means that when someone harvests oysters, they should only take clusters with large oysters and to take a metal tool such as a hammer to knock off dead or smaller oysters so they can continue growing where they were found.
“You knock those off, they land right in the mud and those will continue to create a habitat for next year’s oysters in the years after,” he shared.
A large single oyster sold at Simmons Seafood.
Dyar encourages harvesting oysters over three inches long, although it is not required. He explained this also makes it easier to shuck and eat them.
Magwood explains that he and Simmons pay special attention to this when harvesting oysters to maintain the growth of the oysters. But, if he breaks an oyster on the bank when culling, he eat it immediately. He said he considers it bad luck to waste an oyster if you accidentally crack it open when picking.
Dyar said the only limit for recreational harvesting is that you have to pick on a state or public shellfish ground that is marked as open on maps on the SCDNR website. Also, you must have an active saltwater fishing license.
“It’s really a great experience to be able to go out and get into the natural resources and get kind of a different perspective. From that kind of marsh perspective instead of the road, or always driving over the bridge or always driving past the marsh; to actually get out in it,” Dyar said.
He said he loves fishing, but there is something unique about the feeling of standing in mud, getting dirty to collect oysters and then the rewarding feeling of taking the oysters back to cook however you like.
“To have that have that resource is extremely important and something we (DNR) hold dear to our hearts. Obviously it is one of our highest honors to be able to manage that resource for the public enjoyment and the commercial resources as well,” he said.
Magwood said that anyone with a saltwater fishing license has the right to pick oysters on a public bed, just like they have the right to cast a net to get fresh shrimp.
“I encourage anybody to get out there to get some fresh air and go do what they want to do. That’s the freedom we have. And there’s such great things here in Charleston,” Magwood said.
He said picking oysters is a lot easier than people think and that it is good for people to get out and learn new things. But he said that it’s important to remember that the hospital isn’t next door.
“Just be very careful and don’t cut yourself because usually if you cut yourself it’s a long ways from somebody to help you,” Magwood said. “Also, make sure you step on some hard shells. Don’t step out in the puff mud because you might not get your boots back.”
He said it could ruin a day if you have to spend time trying to pull your boots out of the mud.
Magwood does not know of any local charters that takes people to pick oysters due to the high risk, but said he is always willing to take someone on a boat ride to see what it takes to get fresh seafood.
Fried oysters are his favorite, but he said oysters on the half shell or oyster stew are other good ways to make them. Magwood has been happy to see more local restaurants carrying local oysters and more oyster bars in the area over the past ten years.
After eating oysters, SCDNR encourages recycling the shells needed for regrowth of the beds at one of their 30 public drop off locations, in 12 counties statewide, which are on also listed on their website.
“You put your shells in one of those bins that’s nearest you and we will take 100% of the shell that is recycled with us and we put back out in the water during summer months onto the marsh,” Dyar said. “In the next season when they’re spawning, they’ll grow new oysters. It helps to manage this species and to keep that habitat going.”
“Not only are these oysters, a cultural and historical importance in South Carolina, and play a deep seeded role in both of those areas but they’re extremely important ecologically as well,” he said.
Dyar said this is why they manage this resource so closely and motivate people to recycle them.
“One single adult oyster can filter up to 70 gallons a day. When we rebuild an oyster reef, we put back shell back about three bushels per 10 square feet. Now, when that same 10 square feet becomes an adult oyster reef it might have almost 1,500 oysters just within that 10 square feet,” Dyar said.
Chris Hardwick (right) and Joe Dunn (left) aboard the boat with Chris Moylan are headed out to reseed the Simmon’s oyster beds with SCDNR in April 2018.
Meaning that recycling just three bushels of oysters could create 1,500 new oysters that are each filtering between 50-70 gallons of water every day.
Dyar said in addition to filtering water, oysters also creating erosion barriers for marshes and provide a vitally important habitat for over 100 different species within South Carolina estuaries. Oysters are a keystone species for estuaries of the state providing a nursery system for offshore species that come inland to pre-produce.
He also explained that 95% of the state’s oysters along the coastline are intertidal, meaning half the time they live in the water and the other half they are subtidal, or under water, within the zone they live. Dyar said this is a unique characteristic to South Carolina. In places where they only grow subtidal, harvesters have to use tongs and hand devices. Fortunately, here you can pick them with just your hands and a bucket.
He wasn’t sure if this changes the flavor of an oyster, but said that his favorite way to eat them is steamed at an oyster roast in the backyard with his family and friends.
“I definitely would put South Carolina oysters up there against any in the nation,” Dyar said. “I believe the brine and the salt is bar none.”