Once upon a time there was a Chesapeake Bay area culture dependent on oysters. The sessile mollusks native to the large estuary on the east coast of the United States drove the economy, industry and appetite of the mid-Atlantic United States from the early 19th century to well into the 20th century. This is no longer the case as oyster population has deteriorated to a dismal 0.3 percent of its population from the early 19th century. As a culture, we have relentlessly bullied this species that John Smith once described as astoundingly thick and plentiful since populating the east coast of the North American continent. There are a number of similarly detrimental reasons for this including disease, over-harvesting, habitat loss, and poor water quality, and they have combined to force extraordinary suffering on a species of incredible importance to the Chesapeake Bay’s health. With today’s water quality and erosion issues enveloping the entire estuary, the filter feeder and shoreline protector’s absence has never been more apparent. Fortunately, there is a solution to this problem in the form of the aquaculture, and it is time to fully embrace this as a society as the harvesting technique of the future. For this reason, we need to stop harvesting oysters the natural way and make a bay-wide transition to oyster farming.
A big obstacle for this plan would be attempting to convince Chesapeake Bay watermen to abandon the craft they have practiced their entire life in order to take up aquaculture. One of the biggest and relatively historical underlying issues with declining oyster populations is overharvesting as we have taken oysters out of the bay for centuries at an unsustainable rate. They have historically been a big target because there has been a great deal of potential money to be made in the business and also the fact that they are so easy to “catch” due to their sessile nature (Livie). The unfathomable amount of people involved in this practice during the 19th and early 20th century left a powerful watermen culture on the shores on the Chesapeake Bay that still exists today. These people, who have incredibly deep roots in the watermen lifestyle, do not want to give up their culture that has been in their family for generations in many cases. One’s culture is frequently directly related to one’s surrounding environment because the surrounding ecosystem is so important for survival (Seidel). For the waterman, this ecosystem was the oysters and their culture and lifestyle was enveloped by them. It is extremely hard to give something like that up, but that is what needs to happen for the good of our surrounding ecosystem.
Timothy Devine, owner of Barren Island Oysters from Hoopers Island, Maryland, has been practicing aquaculture for five years now. He said that the Maryland system still needs work because he had no idea what he was doing when he started out and that some of the laws were “absurd” and that there is “no flexibility with stuff.” Despite this, he believes aquaculture to be the way of the future, even stating that we should be exclusively using the method of aquaculture over natural harvest, and takes great pride in his high quality business. Barren Island Oysters are very proud of their environmentally friendly business and their business model states that they are “sustainably raised and responsibly harvested.”
We have operated for centuries with a manifest destiny ideology when it comes to resources. We have thought we can take whatever we need from the environment without any future consequences. William Cronon points out that this may be a result of a fundamental flaw on how we view nature and wildness as separate from us. This type of mindset leads us to not consider the negative effect on us when we try to change or alter nature (Cronon). Regardless, we have dealt with finite resources with an infinite mindset, either not realizing the future problems that would ensue, not caring about them, or figuring there would be some remarkable technological advancement that would fix everything. Today, technology has given us an answer. Oyster farming gives us the opportunity to continue to consume oysters without any negative effects on the environment while waiting for the natural oysters to recover. It is time to fully embrace this as a society.
Cronon, W. (1995). The Trouble with Wilderness: A Response. Uncommon Ground: Rethinking the Human Place in Nature, 69-90.
Livie, K (2015). Oysters [Powerpoint Slides].
Seidel, J. (2015). Science and Society – Part 1 [Powerpoint slides].