Oysterman Carl DiPace spent this week out in the cold wash on the reefs, pulling in cluster after cluster — nothing says Thanksgiving in the Lowcountry like that salty slurp of meat.

But more and more, DiPace finds himself setting and harvesting single oysters instead of clusters. He's begun a business planting oyster reefs alongside waterfront homes as an alternative to riprap or a sea wall. Somewhere in that pluff mud he has his hands on the future.

While other regions along the East Coast and across the world struggle to restore oyster beds lost to development pollution, disease or salinity changes, the South Carolina coast has kept a hold on the resource and is on the leading edge of new approaches and techniques.

That was the prevailing lesson at the 11th International Conference on Shellfish Restoration hosted by the South Carolina Sea Grant Consortium here earlier in November.

But at the same time, coastal development is causing more pollution problems. Funding cuts in the nosediving economy have hamstrung staffs and programs in the public agencies that manage development and coastal waters.

"We're very fortunate. We have the luxury of saying we're trying to protect the resource that's here," said Karen Burnett, an associate professor of biology at the College of Charleston, who attended the conference. "I think we're doing the right things. I'm concerned about being able to continue."

DiPace, 52, is a longtime shellfish and oyster harvester who lives in Adams Run. He began cultivating single oysters for two reasons: the check and his back. The singles compete with Gulf and New England bivalves that are sold as delicacies.

"As I get older and my back hurts more, it's the old adage: work smarter not harder. There's a huge market for singles. Instead of picking 15 bushels of clusters I can pick three baskets of singles and make just as much money," he said.

Singles are harder to grow and are picky about spots, and have to be constantly hosed down to keep other oyster spat from grabbing hold.

And the job itself is getting tougher. Oyster beds up and down the coast are being shut down more often after rains because of pollution from storm water runoff. Fewer oystering license are sold anymore.

"As we continue to develop, the coast beds are being closed, beds choke up and die," DiPace said. That's where the business planting homeowner oyster reefs comes in, a way to avert a shoreline structure that would take away from water quality and use the water-filtering bivalves to stop some pollution at the subdivision source.

"It's a whole lot cheaper than a sea wall. They'll have oysters. They'll have live habitat for fish, crab and shrimp and it will be erosions control," DiPace said.

Water quality is "the big 'but,' " said Mel Bell, S.C. Department of Natural Resources fisheries management director. "Of all the fisheries, the one where we have really good potential to expand is shellfish. But we've got to be really careful about our water quality."

The oyster harvest so far has stayed relatively consistent year to year at about 80,000-90,000 bushels, said Bill Anderson, DNR shellfish program manager. More oysterman are cultivating singles; the wild harvest has gone from 100 to 600 bushels in four years. Buyers are looking for them.

"It's the same salty taste (as wild clusters)," Anderson said. "The singles we produce are in higher demand."

DNR programs such as volunteer urban re-planting of oyster beds have been stopped this year by budget cuts. The loss of that kind of hands-on experience for the public is alarming to Burnett, the biology professor. It might be the key to protecting the resource.

"People are going to care a lot more (about water quality) if they're growing their own food under their own dock," she said.

Reach Bo Petersen at bpetersen@postandcourier.com or 745-5852.