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End of the Oyster Season, End of the Oysterman?

MCCLATCHY NEWS SERVICE

The air at the Bluffton Oyster Co. dock on South Carolina’s May River is still and hot. The sun’s warmth heralds the approach of spring--and the end of another year’s oystering season.

But out on the river, where the small power boat bounces against the mid-March wind and currents, passing mud flats and fingers of water snaking through the marsh, winter is in full force.

None of the oystermen seem to notice the cold. They’re used to it and prepared for it, as were their fathers and grandfathers before them.

Despite their bulky layers of flannel and denim and the high rubber wading boots enveloping their legs, they move freely and gracefully to a silent rhythm.

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On the lonely banks of tidal creeks off the May River, surrounded by endless marsh and uninhabited islands, they swing at oyster clusters with heavy cast-iron tongs. They pitch oyster-filled buckets onto creaking flat-bottomed boats.

On a solitary mud bar, oystering veteran Sam Bennett drags a pail of oysters from the razor-sharp beds toward his boat. With each step, he sinks nearly a foot deep into the black ooze of “pluff mud.” Popping, sucking sounds burst forth as the mud relinquishes each foot.

Asked if his children are following in his footsteps, Bennett, who has been working the May River beds for more than 40 years, laughs. “No, it’s too much hard work for them.”

Low-country naturalist Tom Smith describes the oyster as a lowly creature that “simply sits its life away . . . and inspires no prose or poetry from the pen of man.” But the tradition of oystering has captured the hearts of artists from author James Dickey to photographer James Leigh.

“The oysterman, the tradition of oystering, the man on the river whose image I had carried so long within me, is nearing an end in my time. Island life, once reserved to itself, is changing rapidly. Most of the men working the rivers are old. Their sons and grandsons have left the islands,” Leigh wrote in his book, “Oystering: A Way of Life.”

“I knew I must photograph now, before it is too late,” he wrote in 1983.

The centuries-old industry today faces threats from pollution spreading throughout the Low Country and from laborers lured away by jobs in Hilton Head Island’s resort industry, oyster workers say.

“I think the labor problem is going to be the worst thing,” said Thaddeus Bailey Jr. “Everyone’s working on Hilton Head now.”

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Bailey, who operates an oyster shucking and packing plant on the Colleton River, has worked the oyster beds for 45 years. His father worked the beds for 30 years before that.

But, the family tradition ends with the second generation. Asked if his son, Thaddeus Bailey III, worked in the family business, Bailey said no. Bailey III is a horticulturist employed on Hilton Head, he said.

“The younger ones just don’t want to learn, and the older ones are getting old,” he said.

More than 100 people worked at the Maggioni Co.'s oyster cannery on Lady Island, before it shut down in 1986, said company manager Roddey Beasley. He now runs a shell-stock dealership, selling bushel bags of in-the-shell oysters and clams on Jenkins Creek, off Edding Point Road in northern Beaufort County.

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His oyster pickers are paid about $8 per bushel and can bring in seven bushels a day after working a four-hour tide, said Beasley. At Maggioni Co., as at Bluffton Oyster Co., the harvesters are independent workers and are paid according to the amount of oysters they bring in.

The company plans to build another cannery on its 11-acre site on Jenkins Creek and has received permits from the South Carolina Department of Health and Environmental Control. But the cannery probably would be only half the size of the old Lady’s Island factory, which produced 40,000, 24-can cases each season, Beasley said.

“We lost a lot of people when we shut down,” he said. “We lost them to restaurants and golf courses.”

L.P. Maggioni and Co. was Chatham County’s largest employer until Union Camp’s arrival in the late 1930s, Beasley said. The Maggioni family started with a factory on Daufuskie Island in 1938 and expanded to a half-dozen canneries in South Carolina, Georgia and Florida. The Lady’s Island plant was the last oyster cannery on the Southeastern seaboard. Daufuskie’s thriving industry died out in the 1950s when industrial discharges into the Savannah River contaminated the delicacies.

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What is now Hudson’s Seafood Restaurant on Hilton Head also was a site of bustling activity. The restaurant building began in 1912 as an oyster factory, where women shucked and packed 250 gallons of oysters a day.

In more recent times, the Low Country’s oyster crop was devastated by natural forces. The searing heat and dryness that plagued the summer of 1986 weakened the oysters’ resistance to a natural parasite known as dermo, causing oysters to die by the thousands.

Local oyster companies reported losing 90% or more of their crop as a result. That year the Lady’s Island cannery lease expired and was not renewed.

But the Low Country’s oyster population is returning to normal, say local harvesters, who expect a good crop next year.

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“They’re just now starting to come back, but we still find a lot of dead shells mixed up with the live,” Beasley said. The oyster supply was too small to warrant reopening a Lady’s Island cannery last year, he said.

But a new cannery was Maggioni’s goal for the 11 acres on Jenkins Creek and may be constructed next year.

“The oysters will be commercially harvestable, we hope, by this time next year,” Beasley said.

Changing government regulations pose another obstacle to the oystering business, Beasley said. He said the company cannot afford to comply with the Environmental Protection Agency’s waste discharge requirements for new plants.

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Shortened leases are also a disincentive, he said. Before 1986, oyster canneries operated under five-year leases with the S.C. Department of Wildlife and Marine Resources; now the lease period is one year.

“That means they could close us down at any time,” Beasley said.

“If we built this plant, we would have to come up with all this waste treatment for waste that’s nonhazardous and biodegradable--it’s oyster juice,” he said. Beasley said he did not understand why the South Carolina Department of Health and Environmental Control would permit Thunderbird Products Inc. to develop a boat-manufacturing plant on the unpolluted Colleton River on one hand but would impose what he considers to be expensive regulations on a shellfish-canning plant on the other hand.

But health department officials argue that even natural biodegradable waste products can cause environmental damage if not treated properly. Any discharge from a cannery--in which large quantities of oysters would be steamed with relatively little water--would carry a high concentrate of oyster organisms, said Andy Yasinsac, manager of the health department’s industrial waste-water division. And highly concentrated outflow of “oyster juice” can kill fish and other aquatic life, he said.

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“Organic compounds have much, much stronger waste waters than waste water coming into municipal sewage,” he said.

Waste water from food-processing plants generally has 2,000 BODs--a measure of biochemical oxygen demand--compared to 200 BODs in municipal waste water, he said. BOD measures the amount of oxygen that bacteria in waste water draw out of a stream. Yasinsac referred to a South Carolina tomato-canning plant, which he would not name, that recently caused a large fish kill through the discharge of its waste water.

“Any industry that generates waste has to have it treated. You can’t really compare (the cannery) to the boat-docking facilities,” said Chester Sansbury, director of the health department’s division of water quality and shellfish regulation.

Shellfish processing plants are regulated by the state health department’s industrial waste-water department and must comply with EPA regulations. Any new plant must install a waste-water treatment system during the facility’s construction, Yasinsac said.

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Shellfish regulations vary from one business use to the next, said Bill Seaborn, the health department’s environmental quality manager in Beaufort. A shell-stock dealer, for example, faces less stringent requirements than does a raw shuck plant, and a raw shuck plant is subject to less strict regulations than a cannery, he said.

Following a health department inspection early this year, Bailey’s company--which shucked and packed oysters--was ordered to shut down in late February. Seaborn cited unsanitary conditions as the reason for closure. Part of the roof had blown off, allowing disease-carrying flies into the shucking room, he said. Seaborn added there were “a lot of other small things” in violation of shellfish regulations.

The health department permitted Bailey to operate as a shell-stock dealer selling oysters in the shell for the rest of the season. But to return to its traditional practice of shucking the oysters and packing the meat, the company must reapply for a new permit, Seaborn said. Bailey said he intends to do so.

Additional regulations affecting oystering deal with water quality. Basically, because oysters feed by filtering water, any pollutants in the creeks become concentrated in the oyster meat. The state health department is responsible for monitoring pollution in shellfish waters.

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