Southern Narratives

Establishing a Brighter Future – the Coastal Conservationist Association

Armed with the recycled leftovers of Lowcountry oyster roasts, a group works to establish and improve ocean habitats for the benefit of marine life and local residents alike.

With cool weather comes joyous events and time-honored traditions, and here in the Carolinas, our cool-weather traditions often include the humble and delectable oyster. Oh, what a night can be had with a few bushels of oysters on the smoker or grill, a cooler full of cold beverages, and a community of friends around a makeshift plywood table, shucking and conversing to their heart’s content.

When the party is over, the bonfire is extinguished, and the last guest is home, the only question that remains is often posed by the overflowing bin of spent oyster shells—“where to dispose of the shells?” Executive Director for South Carolina’s Coastal Conservationist Association, Scott Whitaker, has the answer.

“Bring them to us,” he urges. “Recycle them at any of our drop off sites all across the state. We will take as many as we can!”

Whitaker is the longest serving active director in the Coastal Conservationist Association, a group started in Texas in 1977 that bills itself as “an organization of strong state chapters comprised of avid recreational fishermen who have banded together to address conservation issues nationally and within their respective states.” For the South Carolina chapter, which was created in 1986, this means that a wealth of outdoorsy South Carolinians have been working tirelessly for thirty years to “conserve, protect, and enhance the present and future availability of our coastal resources for the benefit of the general public.”

Locally, the chapter (which serves as a complete marine conservation group) has two separate missions. First, they play an advocacy role to protect resources, including assisting in an impressive amount of state and federal legislative work regarding fishing size limits, fisheries, and more. Second, they seek to improve fish habitats, and while their focuses and efforts are vast, their most notable current project is the restoration and establishment of oyster reefs from Murrells Inlet all the way to Hilton Head.

In 2009, the South Carolina chapter of the Coastal Conservationist Association turned its attentions toward oyster recycling, and, led by Scott Whitaker, the group created the Topwater Action Campaign. Working in conjunction with the Department of Natural Resource’s SCORE (South Carolina Oyster Restoration and Enhancement) program, the Topwater Action Campaign has donated nearly a quarter of a million dollars as well as innumerable materials, equipment, boats, trailers, and hours of manpower, all toward the common goals of recycling oyster shells, establishing and restoring habitats, improving water quality, and educating the public.

Since the campaign’s beginnings, oyster recycling has increased tremendously across the state, and the ability to establish reefs in different parts of estuaries is up by 30%. No longer are man-made oyster reefs created by a hard-working DNR employee backing a trailer up as close as one could get to an estuary and dumping in a load of oysters. Now that CCA is involved, they have donated boats to the cause, giving the SCORE program the ability to expand their site locations. In just six summers, the state chapter of the CCA assisted with approximately 60 oyster reefs across the whole South Carolina coast.

The man-made oyster reefs are created solely from recycled oyster shells, like those left over from a Lowcountry oyster roast, and take a year or two to fully establish once placed. Eventually, new oysters come to inhabit the shells, but the bivalves in these reefs are not open for consumption; their main purpose is to serve as a habitat for marine life.

In fact, the slogan of the Topwater Action Committee is “Habitat Today Equals Fish for Tomorrow.” According to Whitaker, 75% of finned fish in the ocean spend a great portion of their time in estuaries, and the strong, multilayered oyster habitats protect them well while they are juveniles. Man-made oyster reefs are also excellent at protecting against erosion and improving water quality: just one oyster filters 50 gallons every 24 hours. For the SC CCA members, there are more than enough reasons to be passionate about their Topwater Action Campaign, but they all come down to envisioning a brighter future for our oceans and future anglers.

“History has shown us that humans are capable of overharvesting and overfishing without any kind of oversight,” Whitaker says. “If we don’t intervene and establish these conservation efforts, our grandchildren will not have the ability to fish—it’s that simple.”

To date, the South Carolina chapter of the Coastal Conservation Association boasts between 3500 and 4000 annual members and continues to grow. The state chapter includes 14 local chapters from across the state, as far inland as Greenville, Rock Hill, and Columbia, and all over the coast. The local communities throw fundraisers on an annual basis, and the money raised goes toward funding projects like the Topwater Action Committee. Members pay just $30 annually to participate in conservation programs, receive a bi-monthly magazine, and become part of the CCA community.

“Membership is important to us from an advocacy standpoint,” explains Whitaker. “It gives recreational fishermen and conservationists a voice.”

For Whitaker, who spent his youth at his grandparent’s marina in Murrells Inlet, it isn’t hard to see how extensive the impact of a healthy marine ecosystem can be on the aquatic life, the surrounding coast, and the people who enjoy it.

“The coast of South Carolina is part of our social fabric in this state,” says Whitaker. “Whether you grew up near the water or further inland, if you have lived in South Carolina, it is part of you, and it remains part of the community. I think it is our duty to protect it.”

By Jana Riley