A Review of Chesapeake Oysters: The Bay’s Foundation and Future
Did you know that oyster aquaculture has been practiced and debated in the Chesapeake region since the late 1800s? William K. Brooks, a researcher with the Chesapeake Zoological Laboratory, was the first to experiment with Chesapeake oyster production in a controlled environment. Brooks, funded by the state of Maryland in the 1880s, studied and promoted ways in which oysters could be farmed to prevent against overharvest of natural oyster reefs. While hugely unpopular among the public, and especially among those in the oyster industry in his time, Brooks’ findings are used today in the booming oyster aquaculture industry.
Kate Livie, the director of education at the Chesapeake Bay Maritime Museum at St. Michael’s, Maryland, shares stories such as Brooks‘ in her 2015 book, Chesapeake Oysters: The Bay’s Foundation and Future. Live gives a fascinating account of the rise and fall and current renaissance of the Chesapeake oyster industry.
Livie’s begins her book by introducing the Chesapeake oyster and its importance in this region, by using historical accounts and anthropological evidence to describe pre- and post-colonial reliance on the oyster as major source of food. Livie argues that oysters were the foundation for colonial settlement in the Chesapeake region, and continued to be a staple in the regional diet over the next century.
Livie goes on to detail the rise of oyster harvesting in the Chesapeake Bay, which became an economic and cultural cornerstone of the region. Cities and towns, like Baltimore and Crisfield, grew in size and prominence during the oyster boom of the mid- to late-1800s. Packinghouses employed thousands of workers, charged with shucking, packaging, and shipping oysters out from the Bay region to other parts of the country.
Industrialization and advances in technology allowed watermen and packinghouses to produce, package, and ship out oysters at an unprecedented rate. They were able to do so as national demand for oysters rose. Chicago, New York, and New England were major consumers of Chesapeake oysters, as many of these places had wiped out their own native oyster beds. As a great number of packinghouses sprang up in the Chesapeake watershed, Livie paints a vivid picture of the efforts these places used to stand out. Unique and colorful cans, trade cards and advertisements for Chesapeake oysters could be found in restaurants and markets along the Eastern seaboard.
With the massive scale of oyster production going on in the nineteenth and early twentieth centuries, watermen adopted new methods, such as dredging, to harvest oyster reefs. Dredging and overharvesting led to the depletion of natural reefs and major reductions of stock. Dredging caused vertical reefs to become horizontal in structure, and made oysters more susceptible to sedimentation, and disease. This susceptibility was no more apparent than in the second half of the twentieth century, when the diseases MSX and Dermo reached the Chesapeake Bay watershed. MSX and Dermo wiped out much of -what was already- a severely depleted oyster population. Populations remain low to this day; current reports estimate that the Chesapeake oyster population is just 1% of historic levels.
Due to disease and overharvest, oyster production was a dying industry in the Chesapeake region until the early 2000s, when scientific researchers discovered a way to harvest an oyster immune to MSX and Dermo, and released this oyster to the market. The discovery of a disease-resistant triploid oyster, unable to reproduce and create spat, has resuscitated the industry. However, this revival is a complete turnaround from natural methods of harvest. Unable to form natural reefs, the triploid oyster must be farmed. Traditional oyster harvesters have been reluctant to switch to aquaculture, especially in Maryland where an aversion and distrust of oyster farming goes back to the days of William K. Brooks.
Virginia on the other hand, has been much more open to oyster aquaculture, historically and with the recent emergence of the disease-resistant triploid. While farming has had a slow start in Maryland, dozens of private oyster farming businesses popped up over the past ten years in Virginia (54 farms registered as of 2013). Outside of farming, hundreds of individuals throughout Virginia raise not-for-profit oysters in floating cages. On this explosion of aquaculture in Virginia, Livie states that from the time VIMS began tracking aquaculture, “Hatchery-produced seed plantings grew from 6.2 million in 2005 to 138 million in 2014- an increase of over 2,125 percent in less than a decade.”
If you want to read more about the emergence of aquaculture in the Chesapeake Bay watershed, or learn more about the history of the oyster in this region, pick up Livie’s book. It’s a great read.
[Livie, Kate. Chesapeake Oysters: The Bay’s Foundation and Future. Charleston: American Palate, 2015.]