A Book Review
Yesterday's Oysters Today
By Don Webster
The Oyster, by William K. Brooks. Introduction by Kennedy T. Paynter, Jr. The Johns Hopkins University Press. $14.95.
Dr. William K. Brooks has reached from beyond the grave. His book, The Oyster, published in 1891 by Johns Hopkins University, has been reissued and stands in stark condemnation of how Marylanders have politicized their oyster industry for over a hundred years.
We have wasted our inheritance by improvidence and mismanagement and blind confidence; but even if our beds had held their own and were to-day as valuable as they were fifty years ago, this would be no just ground for satisfaction, in this age of progress, to a generation which has seen all our other resources developed and improved.
Brooks was writing in a period when the oyster harvest had started to recede from a 10,500,000 bushel annual yield. Harvests had routinely been in these eight digit figures and yet he foresaw the destruction that was occurring through indiscriminate gathering. He also had the unshakable faith of one who knew that, with cultivation methods, harvests could not only be maintained at these high levels, but increased. He was one of Maryland's first Oyster Commissioners and, in that position, argued for the first surveys of the State's oyster bars, a feat which took place early in the 1900s. Unfortunately, most of his other strongly held opinions on how to increase the harvest for the betterment of the citizens were never instituted.
I first read Brooks twenty-two years ago when my wife surprised me with a copy that she found in mint condition in an old book store. I have treasured it since. The impact of the first reading was immense. His warnings, laid down with laser precision, have not diminished to this day.
This edition is enhanced by an introduction by Kennedy T. Paynter, Jr., one of today's bright young oyster scientists. He essentially reinforces Brooks' arguments and updates them with references to contemporary oyster literature. Paynter not only gives a much needed update to the original text but introduces the specter of the oyster diseases popularly known as MSX and Dermo that have led to the current crisis in the industry. An interesting aspect about the diseases, however, is that they have likely been spread by the very programs meant to help the fishery.
If you follow the history of conflict in public policy regarding the Maryland oyster industry, you find that about once in every generation a scientist has come along who has not only come to the same conclusions as Brooks, but has had about as much success in effecting a long lasting and meaningful change in the industry. Today, however, there has been a new-found interest in the oyster - not just as a commercial entity, but as an important benthic organism and effective biofilter that can be of significant value in helping to cleanse the Bay of excessive phytoplankton.
While the reprint is excellent reading and includes a faithful reproduction of both Brooks' words and figures, its production quality unfortunately cannot come close to the original. The first edition is bound in green with a gilt oyster embossed on the cover. The lithographic illustrations in the original are printed in handsome sepiatone which is not well reproduced in the latest volume. Some of the plates seem to have been reproduced from less-than-perfect originals, as wrinkles and tears seem evident in a few. Perhaps, if this volume sells well, a special collectors' edition should be considered, with binding and plates as high quality as those of the original.
Brooks' popular treatise on oysters contains the basics of how an oyster works, explained in a form easy enough for youngsters to understand. Indeed, in addition to his prowess as a biologist, Brooks was an excellent popular writer, able to explain scientific theory and detail in a very understandable form. In explaining the amazing fecundity of the oyster, for instance, he calculated that, if all descendants from a single female lived and reproduced only once, in the fifth generation their mass would make up more than eight times the volume of the Earth! And this was in the days before computers. He then goes on to cover the early work in artificial propagation of the animal.
He traces the culture of oysters through manipulation of spawning and catching spat in the water back to the early Romans. Brooks next speaks of the successful culture operations that he had investigated in Europe and various parts of the United States. These are presented as examples of how the Chesapeake Bay could become an oyster gold field, if properly managed.
Our opportunities for rearing oysters are unparalleled in any other part of the world, and in another place I have shown that, in other countries, much less valuable grounds have by cultivation been made to yield oysters at a rate per acre which, on our own great beds, would carry our annual harvest very far beyond the sum of all the oysters which have ever been used by the packers of Maryland and Virginia.
In his chapter on "The Cause of the Decline of our Oyster Industry, and the Protection of our Natural Beds," Brooks notes that the primary obstacles to increases in production are lack of access to planting grounds and theft of privately cultured oysters. These problems remain today two of the most persistent in inhibiting production through non-public means. The history of Maryland's oyster industry is one in which the different segments of the industry blame others for their woes and, as a result, nothing happens to improve matters.
All agree in throwing the blame on someone else and all believe that some form of the business in which they are not interested is responsible for the present state of things and should be prohibited; but as the oyster navy is a convenient scapegoat, all parties unite in throwing the blame upon the officers of the Fishery Force.
Chapter Vl is entitled "A Talk About Oysters" and purports to be a conversation between a farmer visiting an oyster packer in Baltimore. The farmer speaks of the declining oyster populations and the problems of the industry and asks questions from a grower's perspective. The packer answers with the same views that have been given more than a thousand times around the docks of Maryland over the years. He says, in essence, that while we know things can be better and have examples of how they have been, the Bay remains common property for all the state's citizens, though it is only a very few who wish to be allowed to use it.
I think, said the farmer, that I begin to understand the situation. It seems something like this. As the beds belong to the community, private oyster culture has not been permitted, since it would be a monopoly. Yet the common property of the citizens of the State has been given up to one class of citizens in order that they might have profitable employment. They have not managed their trust wisely, and have brought it so near the verge of ruin that it is no longer attractive to Marylanders, and they have called in the cheaper labor of foreigners. To give these foreign laborers employment the people of the State have not only given up their rights, but have also paid taxes for the support of the navy. This state of things cannot last. What do you propose to do about it?
The final chapter in The Oyster is called "The Remedy." In it, Brooks gives his ideas about how the oyster harvest from the Bay could be increased, although he is quick to bring humility into his suggestions by noting that there are many divergent interests and viewpoints involved. His proposals, however, remain as potentially effective today as when they were written.
To ourselves and to our posterity we owe it that our resources shall be fully developed, for our oyster-beds are our greatest source of wealth, and upon them, more than upon our commerce, our manufactures, or our farming land, the future wealth and prosperity and population of our State depend.
This is a book that should be in the collection of every person who values the Chesapeake Bay and its natural resources. It is the story of what could have been and what could still be. It is a book that provides facts and figures on how to turn around a failing fishery and make it great once again. It is a book that needs to find its way into the hands of every politician and policy maker in Maryland.
Perhaps William K. Brooks, in his second time around, will be able to change a few hearts and minds about the potential of this great estuary and its oyster industry. But even if that doesn't occur, he will still be seen as a visionary with a hard, practical streak. Not unlike Paynter and some of his contemporaries - let's wish them luck as they try to alter the downward spiral of the Chesapeake oyster fishery.
Don Webster is the Maryland Sea Grant Extension Area Agent for the Eastern Shore.