Oyster History

Oysters through the eras

1600s

Captain John Smith describes oysters on the ground “as thick as stones.” Abundant, easy to harvest, inexpensive and nutritious, they are a dietary staple for colonists. The shells are prized for fertilizer, roads and mortar.

1700s

Chesapeake traveler Francis Louis Michel writes: “The abundance of oysters is incredible.” Oyster harvesters use tongs to retrieve oysters from the water.

Oxford Marine Library Archive (3)

1800s

There are 450,000 acres of underwater reefs in the Bay, and communities rely on oyster harvests for their livelihood. With more than 100 oyster-packing houses and a booming rail business, by the turn of the century Baltimore becomes the hub of the American canning industry with oysters being shipped nationwide.

Late 1800s

Oyster production peaks. Soon hundreds of skipjacks are plying the Bay, contributing to an annual harvest of 14 to 20 million bushels in Maryland. Disputes about the ownership of the oysters leads to the bloody Oyster Wars over the Bay and its bounty.

Oxford Marine Library Archive

Early 1900s

The economic engine supported by the oyster craze comes at a cost. Workboats deplete the hard bottom of the riverbeds. Harvests begin to decline. Runoff pours into the Bay as the Industrial Age begins.

1916

Natural resource organizations initiate efforts to manage the Bay oyster fishery.

Oxford Marine Library Archive (2)

1950-1960s

The native oyster population is ravaged by two deadly diseases: MSX (Haplosporidium nelsoni) and Dermo (Perkinsus marinus.)

1993

The Oyster Roundtable is convened to address concerns about the native oyster population in Maryland. The result is an action plan and founding of the Oyster Recovery Partnership (ORP) in 1994.

2000s

Digital technology, like sonar and GPS, and placement of man-made reefs enhance recovery efforts.

2003

The annual oyster harvest is 26,000 bushels, the lowest on record.

2008

The Marylanders Grow Oysters program is launched to raise awareness about the importance of oysters to the Bay’s ecosystem. It provides citizens a no-cost opportunity to grow oysters and make a tangible difference in the health of their waterways.

2009

The President signs Executive Order 13508, Chesapeake Bay Protection and Restoration, that recommends large-scale oyster restoration in Maryland and Virginia. Findings from the bi-state and federal government’s environmental impact study is released, outlining ways to enhance the Bay’s oyster population.

2010

The Maryland Oyster Advisory Commission advises the state on strategies related to rebuilding and managing the oyster population in Maryland’s portion of the Chesapeake Bay. The Maryland General Assembly passes laws to revamp the wild oyster fishery and shellfish aquaculture. ORP launches the Shell Recycling Alliance, a network of restaurants and seafood suppliers, saving their used oyster shell to use in local restoration efforts.

shell recycle banner

2011

Programs begin to train watermen and oyster farmers how to produce oysters and operate and aquaculture business.

2012

Large-scale oyster restoration efforts begin in Harris Creek, a tributary of the Choptank River complex on Maryland’s Eastern Shore.

2013

The University of Maryland Horn Point Laboratory Oyster Hatchery produces more than a billion baby oysters in a single year. Maryland’s aquaculture oyster harvest increases by 572% from the previous year, helping to meet the growing need of restaurants and consumers.

Hatchery Banner

2014

The Chesapeake Bay Watershed Agreement is signed as part of a regional compact to restore native oyster habitat and populations in 10 tributaries by 2025. Six tributaries are finalized; three rivers in Maryland: Harris Creek, Little Choptank and Tred Avon, and three rivers in Virginia: the Lynnhaven, Lafayette and Piankatank.

2015

Approximately 350 acres of oyster habitat in Harris Creek are restored to population levels last seen 50 to 100 years ago. It is declared the largest oyster sanctuary project in the world.

2016

The Chesapeake Bay Program approves several oyster aquaculture approaches for use as best management practices to reduce excess nitrogen and phosphorus in the Bay. ORP’s Shell Recycling Alliance, now more than 300 members strong throughout Maryland, Virginia and Washington DC, celebrates a 100,000-bushel milestone.

2017

There are currently 409 active shellfish aquaculture leases in Maryland, covering 6,600 acres, and producing an oyster harvest of approximately 75,000 bushels.