Oysters’ Place in History
A Symbol of Chesapeake Bay Heritage
Oysters have held the power of life and death, offering a needed protein source to millions during the Great Depression, yet causing bloodshed during the Oyster Wars of the mid-late 1800s. Oysters have also been credited with the power of passion, finding seductive connections with Aphrodite and Casanova. But above all, oysters represent a simpler life, a slower pace and a culinary love affair with the Chesapeake Bay. They represent a life that depended on the bounty of the Bay.
A hundred years ago, oyster harvests exceeded 10 million bushels a year, but those days are long gone. Oyster-specific diseases, historic over-fishing, and the onslaught of silt and sediment, run-off and degraded water quality have overwhelmed the remaining oyster reefs, leaving the wild fishery harvest rates at just a fraction of what they once were. Not only has this impacted a major economic engine for many of our rural coastal communities – all but destroying a once-thriving watermen culture – the bay’s ecosystem is also under attack.
One of the Most Endangered Habitats on the Planet
The Bay oyster industry was the envy of the world with oysters so numerous they were a navigational hazard . . . until the oyster stock collapsed nearly 50 years ago because of disease, habitat loss, declining water quality and over-harvesting.
The Bay has lost more than 99 percent of its native oysters and continues to lose an estimated 2,600 acres of oyster habitat annually. In fact, oyster reefs have been called one of the most threatened marine habitats on the planet. Bay oysters used to filter the entire bay in a matter of days — now, it takes more than a year. Oyster reefs are necessary to improve the health of the Bay, because without them, other bay species that rely on oysters will suffer. Thus, oysters have often been termed “the unsung hero of the Chesapeake Bay.”