History & Management
When John Smith explored the Chesapeake in the early 1600s he remarked that oysters "lay as thick as stones."
By the end of the 19th century, a booming oyster fishery had taken many of those "stones" from the Bay. In 1891, Maryland scientist and state Oyster Commissioner William K. Brooks declared in his book, The Oyster, "We have wasted our inheritance by improvidence and mismanagement and blind confidence."
His words proved only a foreshadowing of more dramatic changes to come as the Bay's historic reefs faced complete dismantling by the 1930s. When the oyster population stabilized, it remained at an average of one quarter of its original size. Management efforts helped to keep population levels steady at this lower level in Maryland for nearly 50 years, until the 1980s.
Unfortunately, during that window of relative stability, two oyster diseases settled in the population and began to take their toll. The diseases hit Virginia first, beginning in the late 1950s. With lower salinities, Maryland's Bay sustained its fishery longer, but by the mid-1980s, accumulated effects of the parasitic diseases Dermo and MSX dealt a near deathblow to the Chesapeake oyster.
Scientists and resource managers are now left with the difficult task of deciding how to best restore the native oyster, Crassostrea virginica. Proposals to introduce an Asian oyster, Crassostrea ariakensis, met with strong resistance. Many expressed concerns over uncertainties associated with putting a non-native species in the Bay. There are cultural implications as well — and few are willing to give up hope that with the right policies, the native Chesapeake oyster can mount a remarkable comeback.
Resource agencies, environmental groups, and collaborative initiatives like the Oyster Recovery Partnership are now using reef building, sanctuaries, hatcheries, and disease-resistant breeding in an effort to restore the native oyster to some semblance of its former glory. So far the regionwide Chesapeake Bay Program has not met ambitious targets — such as increasing oysters 10-fold by 2010, over 1990 levels.
Who Killed Crassostrea virginica? The Fall and Rise of Chesapeake Bay Oysters (1-hour documentary)
Native Oyster (Crassostrea virginica) Restoration in Maryland and Virginia: An Evaluation of Lessons Learned 1990-2007
Maryland Oyster Aquaculture Information
Maryland Oyster Advisory Commission's 2008 Report (pdf)
Sixteen Decades of Political Management of the Oyster Fishery in Maryland's Chesapeake Bay
A Century of Conflict
Oyster Farming vs. Oyster Hunting
The MSX Files: Unmasking an Oyster Killer
Volume 5, Number 2, 2006
Skipjacks for the 21st Century
Volume 2, Number 1, 2003
A New Oyster for the Bay
Volume 1, Number 3, 2002
Maryland Marine Notes
Oyster Reefs: Key to Restoring Bay Grasses
Black Men, Blue Waters: African Americans on the Chesapeake
Aquaculture and Restoration
A Question of Survival
Legislating to Fight Disease
Planting Oysters in the Chesapeake
The New Oyster Wars
Improving Bay Water Quality - The Role of Oyster Reefs
Oyster Restoration in the Chesapeake: Looking Back, Looking Forward
Citizens Oyster Forum