Oysters and the Chesapeake, very interesting progress

By Jeff

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Oyster History

Oysters through the eras


Captain John Smith describes oysters “on the ground as thick as stones.” Colonists make them a staple on the dinner table. They are abundant, easy to harvest, inexpensive and nutritious. The shells are prized for fertilizer, roads and mortar.


Chesapeake traveler Francis Louis Michel writes: “The abundance of oysters is incredible.” Oyster harvesters use tongs to retrieve oysters from the water.


There are 450,000 acres of oyster reefs in the Bay. Communities throughout the region rely on oyster harvests for their livelihood. With more than 100 oyster-packing houses and a booming rail business, by the turn of the century Baltimore becomes the hub of the American canning industry with oysters being shipped nationwide.

Late 1800s

Oyster production peaks. Soon hundreds of skipjacks are plying the Bay, contributing to an annual harvest of 14 to 20 million bushels in Maryland. Disputes about the ownership of the oysters leads to the bloody Oyster Wars over the Bay and its bounty.

Early 1900s

The economic engine supported by the oyster craze comes at a cost. Workboats deplete the hard bottom of the riverbeds. Harvests begin to decline. Runoff pours into the Bay as the Industrial Age begins.


Natural resource organizations initiate efforts to manage the Bay oyster fishery.


The native oyster population is ravaged by two deadly parasites: MSX (Haplosporidium nelsoni) and Dermo (Perkinsus marinus.)


The Oyster Roundtable is convened to address concerns about the native oyster population in Maryland. The result is an action plan and founding of the Oyster Recovery Partnership in 1994.


Digital technology, like sonar and GPS, and placement of man-made reefs enhance recovery efforts.


Oyster harvests are 26,000 bushels, the lowest on record.


State and Federal agencies complete a six-year study of the Bay’s oyster industry, and the Maryland’s General Assembly passes laws to revamp the wild oyster fishery and shellfish aquaculture. President Barack Obama declares the Chesapeake Bay a “national treasure” and signs a federal order to restore oysters in 10 tributaries by 2025. The Oyster Recovery Partnership starts the Shell Recycling Alliance to collect and recycle oyster shell, which is used to restore reefs.


Programs are offered to train watermen and oyster farmers how to produce oysters and operate an aquaculture business. Seed planting begins in Harris Creek, the first large-scale tributary to be restored in Maryland and the largest restoration project in the world.


University of Maryland Horn Point Laboratory Oyster Hatchery produces more than a billion baby oysters in a single year.


More than two-dozen new oyster farms are operating in the Chesapeake region, meeting a growing need of restaurants and consumers. Little Choptank River, the second tributary, begins to be restored.


Harris Creek, the first of five tributaries in Maryland is restored to population levels last seen 50 to 100 years ago.

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