The World Is Your Oyster Until You Run Out of Oysters

Both our oyster size and population in the Chesapeake Bay have been decreasing rapidly — the number of oysters has decreased to about 1 percent of what they were in 1900, and they’re growing physically smaller than they used to. This trend concerns fisheries, foodies, and biologists alike. The fisheries are harvesting smaller and fewer oysters. For the biologists, their concerns aren’t limited to the oysters but rather extend to the ecological services that they provide, such as filtering the water (and thus improving water quality) and creating reefs for other organisms to benefit from. They could also serve as a model for how to deal with other declining species.

The archaeological record holds clues for dealing with this oyster decline. After investigating trash pits along the Chesapeake area and analyzing the size distribution throughout time, they discovered that the oysters were most stable around 3,200 to 400 years ago when Native Americans dominated the land. The oyster population remained relatively constant despite changing climate conditions and rising sea levels; the Native Americans were able to harvest oysters without exerting a continuous heavy pressure on the population.

Archaeologists excavating a trash pit from Native Americans that contains oyster shells

Native Americans tended to fish by hand seasonally and closer to shore, allowing populations in the deeper depths to reproduce without any added human pressures and for depleted populations to strengthen and recover. This contrasts with today’s overharvesting method of dredging along the bottom of the sea (which not only collects the oysters but also harms their environment). However, it should be noted that there were fewer humans to feed, cleaner water conditions with less disease, and a more stable oyster population to start with.

Many are looking to revive or at least combine some of these practices with today’s modern fishing industry in order to become more sustainable. However, we cannot continue to fish at the same production level if we want the oyster population to recover; we have to change our habits. Thus there’s a big push for oyster sanctuaries that halt fishing. This means that there will be fewer oysters available to consume, so we need to decrease our consumption rates.

Hollywood Oyster company harvesting and sorting oysters from the Chesapeake Bay. In order for the oyster population to survive, we need to change our habits.

Even changing our habits — both how often and the style we harvest oysters in — does not mean that oysters will grow to the size and in the quantity that they used to. There’s an uphill battle for the oyster populations to recover with our decreasing water quality and diminishing oyster habitats. The new environment we’ve created in the Chesapeake Bay can never go back to what it was during pre-colonial America, so we need to work with the ever-changing conditions to develop a long-term harvesting plan. If that does not seem plausible, we might need to stop consuming oysters all together and find alternative food sources — taking into account potential long term, irreversible damage we could do to the species.



Further Reading


2 thoughts on “The World Is Your Oyster Until You Run Out of Oysters

  1. Resource management can be a tricky endeavor involving multiple interests groups. Who is actively involved with this oyster crisis? Do oysters have any cultural or religious value to any Native Americans? Would the potential banning of the consumption of Chesapeake Bay oysters have other ill effects?

  2. I’m not entirely sure if the oysters have a religious value to the Native Americans, but they were a vital source of food (including other resources from the Bay) and were very important culturally. Some traveled there seasonally to gather resources while others lived near the area more permanently. Scientists, lawmakers/government, organizations (such as the National Oceanic and Atmospheric Association), as well as others are actively involved, as the effects of the oyster crisis are widespread, whether in terms of the oysters themselves or the economic implications. (1)

    A ban on the consumption will temporarily affect the fishing industries, but not having the ban could, in the long run, be more detrimental. Everyone will have to give to some extent in order for the oysters to recover.

    As for an update, President Trump is looking to cut funding for the restorative efforts which would put the future of the oysters in jeopardy. The oysters play a key part in the ecosystem and keeping the water clean, so losing the funding would make saving the oysters more difficult. (2)


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