Local Oysters Update

 ©LocalOystersFilm2017

©LocalOystersFilm2017

After a successful summer, Local Oysters is moving ahead in production. Local Oysters is an exploration of the role of the oyster in the economy, ecology, and cultural history of the Lowcountry of South Carolina.

The main subject of the film is Cyrus Buffum. Cyrus is a young man from coastal Massachusetts who moved to Charleston, South Carolina to attend the College of Charleston. While in Charleston, Cyrus fell in love with the beauty of Charleston's waterways and founded Charleston Waterkeeper, a nonprofit water quality rights organization. Over the next seven years, Cyrus led Charleston Waterkeeper on a mission to protect and restore Charleston's waterways to ensure the public's right to potable, swimmable, fishable water. Last year, Cyrus made the jump from Waterkeeper to his newest venture, Seaborn Oyster Company. At Seaborn Oyster Company, Cyrus seeks to establish a responsible and sustainable seafood business that brings wild oysters and eventually farmed oysters from the Stono River to Charleston-area restaurants.

Water quality emerged as a major theme in this story. Oysters are a major indicator of the health of a waterway along with the stability of the surrounding ecosystem. Their flavor is affected directly by what is in the water and how much the tide swings every day. Cultural Historian and Chef, "Hoppin' John" Taylor, describes this as being the merroir of the oysters, similar to the terroir of wine. When you eat an oyster, you are literally tasting the body of water from which it came. Andrew Wunderley (Charleston Waterkeeper) and Larry Toomer (Bluffton Oyster Company) caution both individuals and coastal municipalities to take steps in order to protect these delicate wild oyster beds both to maintain the stability of a healthy tidal marsh ecosystem and to preserve the health of individuals surrounding the shellfish industry. 

Before the opening of the 2016-2017 wild oyster season in South Carolina, the DNR and DHEC placed a delay on the season across the state and a seasonal closing of wild oyster grounds near the Beaufort area. This is due to heightened water temperatures over the summer causing unsafe levels of algae and bacteria in the water. In Beaufort, heightened levels of fecal contamination in the waterways have caused a great deal of uncertainty for oystermen and those working directly with the seafood industry. They will be forced to find new ways to support themselves while the state and local governments attempt to find the source of the contamination. Likely suspects include run-off from new subdivisions, animal waste from farms, increased sewage dumping, or maybe leaking septic systems. All of which highlight the growing concerns that rapidly developing coastal communities like Bluffton face on a daily basis. 

This fall, we will follow the effects of this seasonal closing along with comparing it to efforts in New York Harbor and the Chesapeake Bay to restore extinct wild oyster populations that disappeared a century ago due to pollution and over-harvesting. In Charleston, Cyrus will embark on his second season and will attempt to expand his business through partnerships with private buyers and restaurants like Leon's. Leon's Proprietor and friend of Cyrus, Brooks Reitz, will discuss the founding of his partnership with Cyrus. We will speak with him and other Charleston chefs to explore the importance of the oyster to their restaurants, how they are incorporating locally-sourced food into their menu, and what they need in order to source their seafood exclusively from local waters. We will also continue to explore the cultural history and importance of the oyster in South Carolina through oyster roasts, festivals, and the renovation of a tabby fort in Dorchester County. 

W. Grey Gowder