The (un)Natural History of the Eastern Oyster

All along the East Coast of the United States, for perhaps as long as man has survived here, there has been a special bond between Homo sapiens and the Eastern Oyster, or Crassostrea virginica. We’ve gorged ourselves on them, savored them, obliterated them, and made great steps toward resurrecting them. However, in order to have a chance at truly saving this species and, in effect, our estuaries and shorelines, it is important to understand the complicated history of our relationship.

When Oysters Ruled the Coast

Back before the age of The New World, before any Englishman had stepped forth onto Plymouth Rock, the Eastern Oyster paved the bottom of the sea all along the East Coast. The pristine nature of our coastal waters back then can scarcely be imagined today. Before major cities started to develop, there was little sediment on the bottom of these bays and inlets. This left exposed all of the prime footholds for spat, or baby oysters.

Image credit: Noaa

Image credit: Noaa

Without having to fret about suffocating in the mud, the Eastern Oyster would have been able to successfully “reef”, or rather, build upon each other’s shells. This created massive colonies, often spanning hundreds of square miles up and down the coast. Areas such as the Darimiscotta River in Maine, Cape Cod Bay, Buzzards Bay, New York Harbor, Narragansett Bay, Long Island, and the Chesapeake Bay, have ideal growing conditions for oysters where they could propagate to unfathomable numbers. However these localities also placed the bivalve directly in the path of Native Americans, who first made this land their home.

Middens and Ancient Peoples

Because shellfish such as the Eastern Oyster provided a valuable source of protein that didn’t require a great deal of energy to attain, they became a staple of the Native American diet. It is noted by the National Parks Service that accessible intercostal islands, such as Liberty Island off of modern day Manhattan, served as ideal harvesting grounds for tribes such as the Lenape, Algonquin, and Narragansett further to the north. The popularity of oysters among many Native American groups is also evident in the massive shell middens found in places such as the Darimasscotta River up in Maine, which were at their peak over 10 meters deep in some places. Anthropologists have also found intact Oyster shells inside of fire pits, which indicate that the Native Americans not only would have consumed them raw but also fire roasted and steamed them inside of seaweed wraps. Given their sustainable harvesting practices, as well as relative lack of population, Native Americans were able to enjoy this resource seemingly without ever having to worry about running out. That is why when European settlers, such as the Pilgrims and Dutch, first arrived in the 17th century, the Natives utilized one of their most abundant resources as a bargaining chip for trade.

First Contact

In 1614, an exclusive agreement was made between the New York tribes and the Dutch settlers, exposing the locations of many ancestral oystering grounds. In return, the Natives received cast iron pots, iron axes, hoes, lead, knives, and other items. By the mid-1600s, occupation, war, and disease forced the local tribes to move out of the area, leaving the great oyster beds of New York open to an invasion of hungry and destructive settlers.

The Great Eastern Oyster Bonanza

Up and down the East Coast, oysters became a keystone of the American diet. As more and more people arrived, the consumption shot up to meet the ever increasing demand. Because of this, the Eastern Oyster created one of the most abundant occupations, employing 52,805 persons total by the year 1880. Some flocked to the docks and became watermen, while others found steady work in the shucking and canning houses. This went on for decades, and the supply continued to produce. The oysters that settlers had originally viewed through crystal clear waters seemed inexhaustible right up through the 19th century, which saw the grand finale of gluttony that this species faced.

Although harvesting had begun with traditional techniques which barely impacted the environment, such as hand picking and tonging, these methods gave way to the newest technologies, such as dredges and steam engines. As harvesting became more aggressive, so did sales, and between 1880 and 1910, America managed to harvest 160 million oyster meats per year, more than all other countries combined. After widespread distribution was made possible by advances in rail car refrigeration, the price of oysters dropped to less than chicken, beef, and fish, making them the most economically viable protein available.

A Man-Made Disaster

However, all of this decadence didn’t come without its cost. Before the East Coast knew what had happened, the industry collapsed after being rocked by a number of disasters which shut it down almost entirely. By the early 1920’s, Eastern American cities realized almost at once that the same waters they were harvesting oysters from were the places where they were dumping their raw, untreated sewage. In bays like the Chesapeake, named by the Algonquin to mean “Great Shellfish Bay,” man had by 1920 destroyed three quarters of the life giving reef necessary for oyster survival by dredging. By the second half of the 20th century, nearly all that remained were eradicated by disease, pollution, and continued overharvesting.

The Modern Renaissance of the Oyster

However, this is not where our story ends for this noble creature. For as destructive as mankind may be, we also possess the unique ability to use our intelligence to restore the resources we have destroyed. Especially if we happen to enjoy eating that resource. Through sustainable farming practices, we have been able to culture this species back into existence from the brink of extinction. The implications of this resurgence are huge, considering a single Eastern Oyster can filter up to 50 gallons of water a day. Therefore, by purchasing East Coast grown oysters, you can rest easy knowing that you’re supporting the rehab of the eco-systems to which this species is native. Not to mention the amazing folks who are actively fighting the uphill battle of restoring these vital ecosystems, as well as the amazing little bi-valves that do all the leg work. 


Sources:

Ruge, J. G. 1898. Florida oysters. Fishing Gaz.,

Mar. 26, p. 193-194

History of Oystering in the United States and Canada, Featuring the Eight Greatest Oyster Estuaries by Clyde L. Mackenzie Jr.

http://spo.nwr.noaa.gov/mfr584/mfr5841.pdf

https://www.nps.gov/stli/learn/historyculture/places_oyster_island.ht

http://www.cbf.org/document.doc?id=523

The Geography of Oysters by Rowan Jacobsen

http://www.habitat.noaa.gov/images/map_images/habitat_oysters.jpg