Venice

The Fate of the Oyster

Melinda Copp

A fire crackled in the center of the backyard, but on this chilly night, no one gathered around it. Instead, the guests of my friends’ annual winter solstice party huddled around a bar height table built from scrap wood. Spread in a pile before us was a steamy batch of May River oysters, harvested within a few miles of that very backyard and served fresh from the steam pot. Foregoing conversation, we worked, busily splitting shells and scooping the salty meat into our mouths, one after another until nothing but empty shells and Pluff mud littered the table. This was the kind of party people in Bluffton look forward to all year. 

The glory of the May River oyster, Crassostrea virginica, aside from the fresh-from-the-river flavor equaled by, the locals say, no other eastern oyster on earth, is the bivalve’s deep cultural roots. Centuries ago, Native Americans gathered on the shores of this river—and others around the country—and feasted on the oysters, marking the gathering sites with rings of shells that are still visible today. And while so many other fisheries up and down the Atlantic coast have succumbed to overfishing and pollution, the May River oyster fishery sustains the last and longest continuously operating oyster shucking factory in the state. That status did not come without difficulty.

Until recently, Bluffton, the town surrounding the river, was a mere square-mile that most people didn’t recognize as much more than the four-way intersection you pass between Hilton Head Island and Savannah. The May River was a pristine and fertile tidal slough, one of those rare natural jewels yet to be disturbed by the human presence. This was the kind of river where a man could fish for dinner. But as much as Bluffton loved their oysters, the town, like so many others along the coast, acquired another passion: development. A land boom that started in the early 1990s has made Bluffton one of the fastest growing towns in the state. The real estate deals came like a flood, and everyone watched Bluffton, a town with a planning staff of two and one building inspector, grow to over fifty square miles and permit developments that would accommodate over 150,000 people in brand new homes. For the people who’d lived in Bluffton since they were children, this meant welcoming a lot more mouths at the oyster roast.

When I moved to Bluffton in 2006, real estate was booming all over the country that year, especially in the Lowcountry. I was working for a business weekly based in Savannah as the South Carolina correspondent, and all I wrote about was real estate development. I can remember calling developers and listening to their energetic representatives cast the vision of progress, “rooftops and roadways,” as they call it in the business. Construction and real estate were the new Bluffton economy. The ecological effects were looming. 

Unlike other watersheds, the May River doesn’t have an upland source. The Lowcountry is tucked in the L-shaped bend of coastline before the land juts out to make the Florida peninsula. When high tide comes in and meets the land, water concentrates in that corner position, pushing fingers of water into tidal creeks like the May River. Because the water is pushed in from the sea, the river actually ends at the headwaters. The only freshwater source is stormwater that rains from the sky and eventually makes its way over and through the land and into the river. The back-and-forth movement of the tides entering the river creates a sloshing effect without completely emptying the river. The combination of all these characteristics makes the May River watershed unique and sensitive. 

The riverbed is crusted in oysters’ reefs, formed when oyster larvae attach to something stationary and start building their shells. Oysters attach to oysters, and together they filter the river water and provide habitat for other species, like sponges and mussels. Being a filter isn’t easy, and a report from Cambridge University in 2012 said studies showed that, across the globe, the total biomass of oysters has decreased by 88 percent, making the oyster a critically threatened culinary delight. But oysters are valuable beyond their deliciousness. Oyster reefs help cushion the coast from storm surge—an appealing feature particularly in a low-lying coastal community in the age of rising seas. And according to a University of South Carolina’s Moore School of Business study, commercial marine fisheries added about $14 million to the state’s economy and supported 661 jobs. Oysters are a keystone species in the ecosystem, and if the oysters fall ill, chances are everything else is struggling too. 

Real estate development is the greatest threat to these delicate ecosystems. Development creates impervious cover, like pavement, roofs, and parking lots. The urban sprawl development pattern so popular in coastal areas consumes forested and agricultural land at a rate six times faster than the growth of the human population. Urban sprawl creates communities that depend on cars for transportation, and about 65 percent of the impervious cover in suburban areas exists to accommodate automobiles. Impervious cover increases the volume of stormwater runoff that reaches the river, and more water means more transfer of harmful pollution caused by human activity. Instead of filtering through a forest, rain falls on a dirty roof, slides into a gutter, flows down onto a driveway, and runs into the sewer and through a system that eventually leads to the river, carrying with it whatever bacteria, viruses, chemicals, and filth it picked up along the way. As pollution accumulates in the water and sediment, it can reach concentrations that make the fish unsafe to eat and the water unsafe for swimming. When Dr. Fred Holland, a native South Carolinian, took a position in the early 1990s as director of the South Carolina Department of Natural Resources Marine Resources Research Institute, he had been studying degradation of the Chesapeake Bay since the 1970s. He continued the same type of research in South Carolina, looking at what caused tidal creek degradation in developing coastal areas. The warning was clear: Bluffton had to do something if they wanted to keep the river healthy. 

To get the word out about the issues facing South Carolina, Dr. Holland started giving talks about what coastal communities could expect as they experienced rapid development, wetland loss, and sprawl. One of the first talks he ever gave was in Bluffton in 1998. Mayor Hank Johnston invited him down, and the town and the county councils attended. “There was concern from people who’d lived in Bluffton for a long time,” Dr. Holland told me on the phone. Development was coming. So, Dr. Holland, one of many experts they called upon for help, told the town what he’d seen on tidal creek watersheds throughout the southeast. And Mayor Hank Johnston committed to protecting the river. He told the newspaper that he envisioned a watershed-wide study of the May River and a comprehensive stormwater management plan that allowed the oyster beds to stay open. Bluffton town officials believed they could have both development and a clean river. Their commitment was so staunch that, you could say, protecting the river was a founding principle of the new Bluffton. They got a federal grant and funding from the county to conduct a baseline study of the watershed, and they built a network of experts and scientists from all over the country. As the town government grew, they added a stormwater management staff. The river was always a consideration. But while they worked, in deals negotiated one by one within the town council’s public meetings, the hands of developers shaped Bluffton.

Living here has a way of making you feel powerless against our own progress. Before the recession, the same drive across town could look different in a week. As much as Bluffton cherished their river, they weren’t keeping it to themselves. Between 1998 and 2009, Bluffton annexed forty pieces of property. If you look at a map of the town limits, the first thing you notice is a doughnut hole of unincorporated land that runs along the northern side of the river along S.C. 46, where the county zoning dictates how the land can be used. Around that hole of county zoning, Bluffton grew from 400 households and 900 residents to 4,769 households and 13,544 residents. The town government grew from ten employees to 102, and their budget increased from $731,685 to $12,832,065 with $8,850,000 in a Capital Improvements fund and another $9.5 million in savings. The town transformed. During this time, as Dr. Holland warned, the May River began to deteriorate. 

In 2007, DHEC said fecal coliform levels in the headwaters had been steadily rising for the past several years, and if the trend continued, the beds would close. When they plotted the data and looked at the trend, the town thought they had five years before the fecal coliform level was actually high enough to shut the beds down. This turned out to be an overestimation. 

Hank Johnston left the mayor’s office and was replaced by Lisa Sulka, a real estate agent, in the beginning of 2009. That year, the nation sunk into a recession, and construction stopped. Five houses on my street sat empty from bankruptcy, entire developments were out of business before they’d broken ground, and many of the commercial properties I’d written about during my stint as a business reporter now sat empty. For the May River watershed, however, the relief didn’t come fast enough. The official letter from DHEC was dated April 23, 2009 and stated that—for the first time in history—DHEC was reclassifying oyster beds on the May River. The upper third of the oyster beds were unfit to eat. 

To the people of Bluffton, who’d been pushing the town on this issue for over a decade, oyster beds closing foreshadowed a future they feared. Although the recession slowed construction, the development deals had already been done. The future of Bluffton included thousands more homes and people, much of which permitted for the watershed’s most sensitive headwater areas. If something didn’t change, it would only be a matter of time before the people of Bluffton had to stay out of the river altogether.

“People were irate,” Kim Jones, Bluffton’s Director of Stormwater Management, told me in her office. “They went to town council and raised hell, and then they went to the county council and raised a little bit of hell there too.” I had known Jones for a few years and our sons went to school together. As she talked, she pulled up a set of slides on her computer and turned the monitor so it faced me. Behind her desk, she had an animal scat identification poster hanging among the documents and photos on her wall, and neon rain gear hung behind her door. As she talked, Jones brought up maps and slides on the computer. In the years leading up to the oyster bed closings, the town had been operating in a reactive mode, she explained. Since the beds closed, they’d completed and adopted the May River Watershed Action Plan and created a committee to oversee its implementation, which allowed them to be more proactive. The Town received two EPA grants for cleaning up and repairing waterways; they’d used the money for public education and to offer septic tank assistance to residents. The town had a transfer of development rights program in the watershed action plan, and they talk to developers about it when they come in for permitting on new phases. For the most part, she said, the developers aren’t interested. This wasn’t surprising to hear. But the town was making progress.

 “Good science makes good policy,” Jones said. She nodded to a bookshelf behind her desk that was filled with binders of reports on the river throughout the years. “We have a ton of data that I feel confident about,” Jones said, and they have been using it to measure the effectiveness of their efforts and determine how to spend money. The May River Action Plan will cost about $40 million over the next twenty years. Gathering that data was accomplished by partnering with the University of South Carolina Beaufort laboratory in 2009. This allowed the town to do their own water sampling and lab work at cost. Based on their testing, they identified fourteen potential project areas around the watershed and prioritized them based on the sensitivity of the location and other factors. 

The first project they completed was building a stormwater lagoon at Palmetto Bluff in 2013. It was an undeveloped area with a stream, Jones explained, that for some reason contained high levels of fecal coliform. The developers donated six acres and moved those planned home sites to a less sensitive area. The town then rerouted the stream, passing it through the new pond, and after a year of watching the numbers concluded the project reduced the fecal coliform level of the water by 75 percent.

“Bluffton has not been on the regulatory hook to fix this problem,” Jones said. The people of Bluffton started this effort to protect and save the May River, and social pressure created the political pressure. Jones said she often jokes that she wouldn’t have a job if it weren’t for some of those people raising hell at town meetings. Bluffton had put money and effort behind that commitment to protect the river. They were working on it. So, what were they missing? And now that the recession was over and development had returned, what would happen to the river?

In the summer of 2014, I went kayaking with a man who said he had some idea how to answer those questions. I met Ben Turner, owner and operator of Native Guide Kayak Tours, just before dawn at the boat ramp next to the oyster factory. The sun blazed behind the horizon, bringing the day; it was coming so fast my eyes could barely keep up with the changing light. Turner, I could tell, had led many people on this same kayak tour, and he recited his pre-paddle checklist of need-to-know information from heart. 

The tide was ebbing and almost at its lowest point, so the muddy riverbanks sat exposed in the morning light. Clusters of oysters held their ground on the river bottom. Wading birds—great egrets, a tricolored heron, and snowy egrets—were so busy fishing they barely noticed our silent boats. All around me I could hear the fish splashing, the oyster shells cracking, birds squawking. In a fluid stab, an egret snagged a wriggling silver fish out of the shallows and gulped it down, not fifteen feet away from my bow. In inches of water, large fish cornered prey against the shore, and the small fish leapt in schools to escape. In the three hours Turner and I were on the water, I even saw two small sharks feeding. The river teemed with life.

 “You can’t appreciate the river when you’re speeding by at thirty-five miles an hour,” he said. Everyone in Bluffton says they love the river, but he felt most didn’t know what that actually entailed. And when the oyster beds closed, Turner said he was sad and embarrassed. Over the years he’d seen people landscaping on their riverfront property in places that should have been left as a natural buffer between human activity and the water. He’d seen politicians base decisions on money, rather than the river’s health. The river is a sanctuary for many animals, but he sees fewer birds. Flocks that used to overwinter on the river don’t come anymore. There’s more litter than there used to be. Every time a boat speeds through the shallow water pulling a skier, the banks erode a little more, the animals under the water are disrupted, and all these little disruptions over time degrade something irreplaceable. We need to think about what we’re doing, Turner said. “I’m just asking people to be better people. That’s what it’s going to take.”

After my kayak tour, Turner told me I needed to talk to Jimmy McIntire, who’d been one of the active community members trying to protect the river. Days before the 2014 oyster season opened in South Carolina, I met him for lunch at a sandwich shop on May River Road. 

“I’m no environmentalist,” Jimmy McIntire told me. “Never have been.” But he took an interest in saving the river when, back in the 1990s, he was standing on the bluff looking out at the water on a brilliant October day. His neighbors had gathered and they were roasting oysters, enjoying their view, when one of the neighbors, a real estate attorney, said get ready for it all to be destroyed because a housing development was coming. McIntire told me the town should be commended for their stormwater management efforts. “It took years and years of yelling and screaming to get them to do it, but we have the best practices in place,” he said. The problem has been enforcing those practices and not making exceptions. He explained that the river has had a break since the recession halted development. Now that development was starting again, McIntire worried water quality would continue to degrade with it.

As we finished lunch, McIntire said he had something he wanted to show me. I climbed into his aging Trailblazer with the faded and peeling “Save the May River” bumper sticker, and he drove west on S.C. 46. On our short drive, we pass a new gas station, a sign advertising home sites starting in the low $200,000s, and a lot filled with marked trees. About five miles down May River Road, McIntire turned in to a new neighborhood near the edge of town. Six of the fifteen or so houses on the new street were still under construction. McIntire pulled up to one of the sites and stopped his truck. The house was framed and covered in plywood, and the yard around it was a patch of exposed dirt. The problem was that no silt fence surrounded the yard to prevent all that soil from running into the sewer system and entering the river—a violation of Bluffton’s development standards. 

“This is the sort of thing I used to take pictures of and take to the town meetings,” McIntire said. Sitting there with McIntire, I could feel the depth of disappointment and frustration that comes with watching a natural resource like this slip away. The best management practices in the world are worthless if you don’t enforce them. “This is a sign of where the politicians’ heads are at as far as the river is concerned,” he said. “And this is just one site that I happened to know about. It’s happening all over town.”

As we drove back to my car, McIntire said he worried because when something happens, like the oyster beds close, you only have so long to fix it before people become complacent and accept it as the norm. We can still have our oyster roasts. We begin to think having some of the oyster beds closed isn’t such a big deal. Later when I spoke to Dr. Holland, who has now retired as director of NOAA’s Hollings Marine Laboratory in Charleston, about Bluffton’s conflicting interests in development and protecting the river, he told me he has to be careful about finding fault. It’s a political issue. The problem is the politicians change and people start worrying about something else—there is no corporate memory. That makes it hard to get things done.

A few weeks after my lunch with Mr. McIntire, the newspaper reported that DHEC was reopening a one-mile stretch of the river for oyster fishing. Kim Jones told the Island Packet newspaper she was “cautiously optimistic” about the change in status. The article read: “She credited a change in rainfall patterns and a drop in polluted stormwater reaching the river over the past three years for the reopening.” The article didn’t mention the effects of land use on the river system or suggest that the slight rebound in the river’s health could be linked to the economic downturn and paused real estate boom. That they’d left the connection out made what I’d seen at the construction site with McIntire feel ominous. 

Despite all the hard work that had gone into protecting the May River, I could drive across town and see that any sort of break the river had enjoyed was over. Can we have development and a clean river? I think if you ask anyone in Bluffton that question, the answer will be that we must try.

Melinda Copp’s writing has appeared in 1966; A Journal of Creative Nonfiction and The Science Creative Quarterly. She teaches and writes about writing at WritersSherpaRetreats.com and lives in Bluffton, South Carolina, with her family.