- Associated Press - Tuesday, December 9, 2014

CHARLESTON, S.C. (AP) - Scientists, regulators and shellfish harvesters from North America and Europe will meet in South Carolina this week to discuss how to improve and protect the crustacean environment.

The International Conference on Shellfish Restoration, which runs from Wednesday through Saturday, is attracting more than 150 participants. The purpose is to bring together both scientists who are conducting research on shellfish and their habitat and those involved in the harvesting of shellfish, said Rick DeVoe, the executive director of the South Carolina Sea Grant Consortium.

“Shellfish are a thread in the cultural and historic fabric of South Carolina and the Southeast,” he said. “Shellfish have served our fishermen for a couple of centuries and it is also an extremely important component of the coastal and marine ecosystem.”

Problems with shellfish grounds - such as when they are closed to harvesting because of runoff from the land following heavy rains - can be a sign of problems with the environment.

“Shellfish are that little canary in the coal mine sort of thing in our coastal ecosystem and when we shut shellfish grounds down temporarily that sends up a signal we have to pay attention,” DeVoe said.

The commercial shellfish harvest in the United States last year was valued at almost $2.9 billion, about half of the total commercial fisheries harvest, according to the National Marine Fisheries Service.

The conference focuses on three main areas: restoring coastal areas so they can again support shellfish; enhancing shellfish populations that already exist; and protecting water quality so shellfish can flourish.

One session will discuss the problems of maintaining healthy shellfish as they are transferred on the East Coast as a result of the growth of aquaculture.

Another session deals with climate change and how it may affect shellfish populations. A conference agenda notes impacts ranging from sea level rise and the ocean becoming more acidic to rising water and air temperatures may affect the health and distribution of shellfish.

The first International Conference on Shellfish Restoration was held on Hilton Head Island back in 1996. It’s been held every other year in Charleston for the past decade.

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