A Review of Chesapeake Oysters: The Bay's Foundation and Future
August 12, 2016
Did you know that oyster aquaculture has been practiced and debated in the Chesapeake region since the late 1800s? William K. Brooks, a researcher with the Chesapeake Zoological Laboratory, was the first to experiment with Chesapeake oyster production in a controlled environment. Brooks, funded by the state of Maryland in the 1880s, studied and promoted ways in which oysters could be farmed to prevent against overharvest of natural oyster reefs. While hugely unpopular among the public, and especially among those in the oyster industry in his time, Brooks’ findings are used today in the booming oyster aquaculture industry.
Kate Livie, the director of education at the Chesapeake Bay Maritime Museum at St. Michael’s, Maryland, shares stories such as Brooks‘ in her 2015 book, Chesapeake Oysters: The Bay’s Foundation and Future. Live gives a fascinating account of the rise and fall and current renaissance of the Chesapeake oyster industry.
Livie’s begins her book by introducing the Chesapeake oyster and its importance in this region, by using historical accounts and anthropological evidence to describe pre- and post-colonial reliance on the oyster as major source of food. Livie argues that oysters were the foundation for colonial settlement in the Chesapeake region, and continued to be a staple in the regional diet over the next century.
Livie goes on to detail the rise of oyster harvesting in the Chesapeake Bay, which became an economic and cultural cornerstone of the region. Cities and towns, like Baltimore and Crisfield, grew in size and prominence during the oyster boom of the mid- to late-1800s. Packinghouses employed thousands of workers, charged with shucking, packaging, and shipping oysters out from the Bay region to other parts of the country.
Industrialization and advances in technology allowed watermen and packinghouses to produce, package, and ship out oysters at an unprecedented rate. They were able to do so as national demand for oysters rose. Chicago, New York, and New England were major consumers of Chesapeake oysters, as many of these places had wiped out their own native oyster beds. As a great number of packinghouses sprang up in the Chesapeake watershed, Livie paints a vivid picture of the efforts these places used to stand out. Unique and colorful cans, trade cards and advertisements for Chesapeake oysters could be found in restaurants and markets along the Eastern seaboard.
With the massive scale of oyster production going on in the nineteenth and early twentieth centuries, watermen adopted new methods, such as dredging, to harvest oyster reefs. Dredging and overharvesting led to the depletion of natural reefs and major reductions of stock. Dredging caused vertical reefs to become horizontal in structure, and made oysters more susceptible to sedimentation, and disease. This susceptibility was no more apparent than in the second half of the twentieth century, when the diseases MSX and Dermo reached the Chesapeake Bay watershed. MSX and Dermo wiped out much of -what was already- a severely depleted oyster population. Populations remain low to this day; current reports estimate that the Chesapeake oyster population is just 1% of historic levels.
Due to disease and overharvest, oyster production was a dying industry in the Chesapeake region until the early 2000s, when scientific researchers discovered a way to harvest an oyster immune to MSX and Dermo, and released this oyster to the market. The discovery of a disease-resistant triploid oyster, unable to reproduce and create spat, has resuscitated the industry. However, this revival is a complete turnaround from natural methods of harvest. Unable to form natural reefs, the triploid oyster must be farmed. Traditional oyster harvesters have been reluctant to switch to aquaculture, especially in Maryland where an aversion and distrust of oyster farming goes back to the days of William K. Brooks.
Virginia on the other hand, has been much more open to oyster aquaculture, historically and with the recent emergence of the disease-resistant triploid. While farming has had a slow start in Maryland, dozens of private oyster farming businesses popped up over the past ten years in Virginia (54 farms registered as of 2013). Outside of farming, hundreds of individuals throughout Virginia raise not-for-profit oysters in floating cages. On this explosion of aquaculture in Virginia, Livie states that from the time VIMS began tracking aquaculture, “Hatchery-produced seed plantings grew from 6.2 million in 2005 to 138 million in 2014- an increase of over 2,125 percent in less than a decade.”
If you want to read more about the emergence of aquaculture in the Chesapeake Bay watershed, or learn more about the history of the oyster in this region, pick up Livie’s book. It’s a great read.
From the Baltimore Sun
Book explores history and future of Chesapeake Bay oysters
By Fred Rasmussen, April 21, 2016
Kate Livie, director of education at the Chesapeake Bay Maritime Museum in St. Michaels, is a champion of Tidewater Maryland’s culture and heritage. Her book, “Chesapeake Oysters: The Bay’s Foundation and Future,” recently published by American Palate, a division of History Press, couldn’t be more timely, as oystermen, scientists and state governments continue to grapple over what is the best way to manage, preserve and increase the bay’s bounty of Crassostrea virginica, better known to connoisseurs as the eastern oyster.
Livie has managed to cram a whole lot of colorful and informative history into 189 lavishly illustrated pages with line drawings and vintage and current photographs that show what back-breaking work harvesting the famed bivalve was and continues to be.
When immigrants landed in Maryland in the 17th century they were “astonished by the abundance” of the oyster banks and beds they found, writes Livie.
And with the coming of the oyster boom in the 19th century, Baltimore became its epicenter, with packinghouses employing thousands who prepared the much-in-demand bivalve that became known as White Gold for shipment across the nation’s railroads.
They were sent as far away as San Francisco’s Palace Hotel, where they were enjoyed by the town’s swells, and to New York City, where legendary trencherman James “Diamond Jim” Buchanan Brady, who made a fortune selling railroad cars, enjoyed slurping several dozen plates of Chincoteagues and Lynnhavens from Virginia, as a warm-up act for dinner.
Livie reminds us that the peak years were in the 1880s when 20 million bushels were harvested each year. By the 1920s, that plummeted to 4 million bushels annually, with oyster diseases MSX and Dermo wreaking havoc on the bay’s oysters. Today, it’s 500,000 bushels.
Today, Livie writes, the bay is “poised to become an indomitable force in the shellfish world again — in defiance of MSX and Dermo’s devastation.”
— Frederick N. Rasmussen (email@example.com)
From Baltimore Magazine:
Chesapeake Oysters: The Bay’s Foundation and Future
By Gabriella Souza - November 2015
It’s easy to forget, as we’re slurping down these delicious bivalves, how much they’re entwined in our history as a state, region, and country. The earliest English settlers wrote about how they encountered the opalescent shells over an open fire, as Native Americans prepared a meal. Then, in the 19th and 20th centuries, thousands in Baltimore and on the Eastern Shore made their livings by harvesting oysters, so much so they nearly destroyed them. Oysters were in such demand that they were given the moniker “white gold” and became the frequent target of pirates. There was even an Oyster Navy patrolling the Chesapeake. Livie, the director of education at the Chesapeake Bay Maritime Museum in St. Michaels, skillfully recounts this history and the science behind these fascinating creatures, weaving historical accounts with anecdotes and engaging tidbits. The information couldn’t be more timely, with oyster aquaculture booming and reminding us all how much we owe to these pearly beauts.
From The Star Democrat:
New Book Chronicles Chesapeake Oysters
By PETER HECK firstname.lastname@example.org | Posted: Wednesday, October 28, 2015 4:30 am
CHESTERTOWN — The Chesapeake Bay oyster is one of the signature products of Maryland’s dominant waterway. The tasty bivalves once seemed an infinitely replaceable resource. Through the late 1800s, they were a staple food and the foundation of an impressive fishery. But in recent decades, the Chesapeake oyster has undergone a population crash, the victim of overfishing and disease.
Kate Livie of Chestertown, director of education at the Chesapeake Bay Maritime Museum in St. Michaels, chronicles the history and natural history of the oyster in her new book, “Chesapeake Oysters: The Bay’s Foundation and Future.”
In an interview Monday, Oct. 19, Livie said growing up in Kent County was a major factor in writing the book. Her father took her crabbing on the river, and every fall, it was a family ritual for her grandfather to shuck oysters on the backyard picnic table. She has honed her shucking skills.
“Oysters are enjoying a hot moment,” Livie said.
They are part of the sustainable food culture and locavore movements, appealing to people who want to know where their food comes from and who grew it. At the same time, they are the only animals with a positive environmental impact, cleaning the waters they grow in by filtering out sediment and algae.
Also, Livie said, Eastern Shore residents have a surprising emotional attachment to oysters. She cited an overflow crowd in the Kent County Commissioners’ hearing room when Scott Budden presented a plan to start aquaculture oyster production in the Chester River. It was illuminating to hear the arguments on both sides, she said.
All these ingredients, plus her experience working on the John Smith 400 project with Sultana Education Foundation and with the maritime museum, inspired her to write the history of the oyster in Maryland.
There’s a lot of history to cover. Archaeological evidence, in the form of huge shell middens along the Bay’s shores, testifies to the importance of oysters in the diet of the Native Americans who populated the area before the arrival of Europeans. After the first frost, when gardens couldn’t be expected to produce any more food, they would move to areas near an oyster bed where they could harvest the shellfish all winter.
The English, when they arrived, didn’t need any invitation to join the feast. In the first winter of the Jamestown colony in Virginia, before the settlers had managed to adapt to their new home, oysters were for several months the only food available. They literally kept the colonists alive through the “starving time.”
Livie reaches out into the broader history of the region, going as far as the evidence of cannibalism in Jamestown or the murder of an indentured servant from the late 1600s in Anne Arundel County (both bodies were discovered surrounded by oyster shells).
The call for oysters didn’t diminish with the arrival of better times. Oysters were so plentiful in the Bay that some Colonial-era recipes called for using them for flavor, then throwing them out before the “main” dish was served. Early settlers reported foot-long oysters on shoals so abundant they broke the surface of the water at low tide.
Oyster shells had their uses, as well, from supplying lime for the mortar for early stone buildings to surfacing “shell roads” and modern driveways.
Livie doesn’t confine her historical narrative to the shellfish. Anyone interested in the early history of the Bay region will find plenty of material here. The book covers a range from before the Jamestown settlement (1606) to less than a year ago, with Budden’s plans for an aquaculture oyster farm off Eastern Neck Island — a project now well underway.
Much of the best material in the book comes from the late 19th century, when the captain of an oyster boat could command an income in the neighborhood of $2,000 per season — as much as $50,000 in today’s money. It was hard work, and crew were hard to come by. Many a crewman had been “shanghaied” off the Baltimore streets, and captains were far from gentle in their treatment of the deckhands.
Nor were relationships between rival boats — or between oystermen and the “oyster navy” appointed to police the trade — any gentler. Disputes often escalated into gunfire during the “oyster wars” of the post-Civil War era. Yet by today’s standards, the regulations were very tame — there was no such thing as a catch limit or a size limit.
But a steep decline in oyster harvests, beginning in the 1880s and ’90s and continuing through the 20th century, led to new approaches to regulation. In the book’s final chapters, Livie looks at the growth of aquaculture and efforts to reseed historical oyster reefs.
At the same time the oyster has become a rarer item, a boutique market for them has grown up, with many of the characteristics of the market for fine wine — where connoisseurs can distinguish the taste of oysters from different parts of the Bay. “Scott (Budden)’s oysters will be very sweet, compared to oysters from Virginia,” Livie said.
“Chesapeake Oysters” is published by American Palate, a division of the History Press. It is available in trade paperback for $21.99. As with other books from History Press, it’s richly illustrated, with both historic and modern material, including a number of photos by Livie herself.