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Monday, October 27, 2008

Chesapeake Bay Oyster History Lesson

Here is some Oyster history:

Beyond mere food, oysters are history. Oysters made Chesapeake Bay and the tidewater culture that embraces it. Chesapeake itself means “Great Shellfish Bay”. Archeologists can spot a pre- European contact Indian village site by the overgrown piles of discarded shells. Visit old tobacco plantations from Mount Vernon to Cape Charles; each has tucked away, amid the poison ivy and kudzu, a mound of old oyster shells quietly dissolving back into the soil. Indentured servants and slaves were fed oysters; cheap protein and free for the harvesting in the shallows. One of the first labor strikes in American history rose from indentured servants complaining about having to eat oysters day in and day out.

When John Smith explored the Bay in the 1500’s, he found oysters so extensive that they formed reefs, breaking the surface at low tide and a hazzard to navigation. The European settlers adapted the Indian appetites and watercraft. Soon, schooners called bugeyes, sporting two raked masts and hulls built from nine old-growth pitch pine logs, were hauling dredges across the reefs. After centuries of onslaught, the reefs soon dwindled to bars; smaller, shorter, and harder to get at, but still chock full of oysters. Bugeyes gave way to skipjacks—single masted plank-built sloops that could handle the new conditions. These graceful craft began the evolution of clipper ships, the acme of sailing ship development.

Oysters are vital to Chesapeake Bay, in large part responsible for its teeming biodiversity and are the Bay’s filtering system. Oysters are what ecologists call a “keystone species”. Keystone species are defined, like the Cheshire Cat, by what’s left when they are gone. Pull a keystone species out of the environmental pyramid, and you get a resulting cascade of unforeseen changes and extinctions of species that, at first glance, have nothing to do with oysters drop in abundance and associated ecosystem function. Ecologists estimate that, at the turn of the 20th century, a volume water equivalent to that of the entire Chesapeake Bay was filtered through an oyster every three days. A single oyster runs 50 gallons of water a day through its gills, feeding on and removing algae and bacteria.

Restored Oyster Reef

Oysters’ prodigious filtering capacity was the major influence on submerged vegetation. Oysters filter feed on one celled algae, keeping the water clear enough for sunlight to penetrate to the bottom, allowing aquatic grasses to thrive. The grasses formed nurseries for crabs and fish of all sorts.

In the 19th Century, sail switched to steam and gasoline engines and the plunder became serious. Maryland made feeble attempts at conservation, such as limiting dredging to sail only, but to little avail. It is an adage among fisheries management people that governments don’t enact management plans until the resource has already dwindled to critical levels. After being pounded for 400 years, the oysters have seemingly given up. Down to one percent of their former populations, they are no longer a major functional part of Chesapeake ecology.

Eastport once had nearly 20 oyster shucking houses and watermen tied up at nearby Annapolis City Dock to off load their bushels of bivalves. Skipjacks and smaller working craft were common in the harbor.


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