An oyster reef for Harbour Town

The Outside Foundation partnered with Harbour Town Golf Links to regenerate a living shoreline with the help of selfless shellfish.


Oyster reef
Oyster reefs like the recently-created one at Harbour Town Golf Links in Hilton Head Island, S.C., are a way to help revitalize surrounding underwater ecosystems. Photo by Adobe Stock

Jean Fruh knew when she was pitching the idea of an oyster reef on the shoreline adjacent to the 18th fairway of Harbour Town Golf Links in Hilton Head Island, S.C., it might be a tough sell in terms of aesthetics alone.

After all, the reef, visible at low tide, initially is little more than hundreds of bags of recycled oyster shells, held in place with rebar.

“We showed them pictures of reef builds we’ve built before and examples of signage to explain what they are, and they were excited people might pay attention. They weren’t at all worried that it might be obstructive to their world-famous golf view,” said Fruh, executive director of Hilton Head-based nonprofit The Outside Foundation, which collaborated with The Sea Pines Resort and the South Carolina Department of Natural Resources on the ongoing project.

The reef might not be much to look at through human eyes, but seen by a baby oyster — if, you know, it had eyes — it’d be quite a sight. And if the millions upon millions of larval oysters make the reef home, as they’re expected to over the generations, and the small critters that feed on those oysters follow, then the bigger predators that feed on those predators come, well, “The oysters we allow to attach will never be harvested,” Fruh says. “They’ll continue to grow, and they’ll someday spawn. And the reefs will continue to grow and grow. It’s wholly ecological, and they’ll continue breaking wakes and providing attachment spots for baby oysters, which in turn will provide habitat for finfish and shrimps and crabs, which are drawn to the reef because they know they can eat there. There are over 100 species that rely on an oyster reef for critical habitat. Oysters are a keystone species. We know they’re not No. 1, 2 or 3. They’re No. 4. But if you pull out No. 4, you lose the habitat for 1, 2 and 3. That’s the concept of a living shoreline.”

When it comes to ecologically beneficial species, oysters really punch above their weight. One adult oyster can filter excess nutrients from up to 50 gallons of water a day. But over the past 150 years, an estimated 85% of the world’s oyster reefs have been lost, due to habitat degradation, climate change, overharvesting and disease.

The oyster reef at Harbour Town Golf Links, constructed in June 2022 by a team of volunteers, with oversight from The Outside Foundation. Photo courtesy of Jean Fruh

Harbour Town Golf Links oyster reef

Oysters also are delicious.

Table-to-waterway programs like The Outside Foundation’s collect the shells of consumed oysters from restaurants and roasts, oversees their natural cleaning and quarantining, and organizes bagging. The first reef installed off the famed 18th fairway of Harbour Town Golf Links — the storied Pete Dye-designed course where 27-year GCSAA member Jonathan Wright serves as Class A superintendent and which since 1969 has hosted the RBC Heritage, South Carolina’s only PGA Tour event — was constructed in June 2022. All-volunteer labor handled the build, which employed more than 700 bags of oyster shells, weighing about 20 pounds each. Another 1,000-bag reef was constructed the following month, making the combined reef the largest of The Outside Foundation’s projects.

The foundation has helped build — under guidance from the SCDNR — nine other reefs, diverting more than 100 tons of shells that otherwise would have ended up in landfills. And from there the numbers really add up. A 100-bag recycled shell reef, Fruh says, can provide an attachment site for 10,000 larval oysters each year.

“When oysters are spawning, we have this larval-rich sort of waterway down here,” Fruh says. “We have millions of billions of baby oysters that have 21 days to float around. But they have to have something to attach to. Unless they find a hard substrate, like an oyster shell or bottom of a boat, they’re pretty much just gone.”

In addition to the filtering and food goodness the oysters eventually provide, the reefs themselves also help mitigate erosion from boat wakes and storms. And as the tide recedes, sediment gets trapped behind the reefs, which makes a good spot for plugging of Spartina, or marsh, grass, a large, deep-rooted plant that serves as an additional filter and erosion mitigator.

“Give credit to Sea Pines Resort,” Fruh says. “They have this kind of vision. It speaks to the DNA of this island. They’re saving money, using a readily available resource, building this natural infrastructure, and we know it works. Up and down the East Coast, there are hundreds of examples of how these reefs are helping protect the natural environment.”

Fruh — a golfer who admits to having “filled her pockets with Pro V’s” from the hundreds of golf balls (and one putter) found during installation at low tide — is especially fond of the community aspect of the project, which is expected to be expanded again this year.

“It really stirs the energy of the people,” Fruh says. “It gives them a tangible experience of, ‘I built that.’ You can be dining on that quarterdeck and look out and say, ‘I helped build that.’”

Andrew Hartsock is GCM’s senior managing editor.