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Oysters 101

At the start of this month, we celebrated National Oyster Week, and we thought it fitting to share a little bit about oysters in this month’s blog post!

Crassostrea virginica, the native Chesapeake oyster, flourished here for many thousands of years. Huge oyster middens (mounds of shells) left by Native Americans have been dated as far back as 2000 BC. The original conditions in the Chesapeake- relatively shallow waters that were rich in nutrients with deeply forested lands bordering the rivers and creeks to deter erosion-were perfect for oysters. Ocean water, mingled with freshwater from all the rivers flowing into the Chesapeake, created the brackish water oysters love. In return, oysters kept the Bay healthy and clean, removing nutrients as they siphoned water through their gill systems. Biologists estimate that when English settlers reached Virginia and Maryland in the 1600s, there were enough oysters to filter the entire Chesapeake Bay once a week, with pristine clarity, even down to a depth of 20 feet.

Astonished at the quantities of oysters in the Bay, the early colonists quickly made them an important part of their diet. Still, it wasn't until the 1800s that commercial oystering really took off. Once it did there was no stopping it. By the mid-1880s, thousands of sailboats plied the Bay, either dredging for oysters or hauling oysters to market. In a little over 100 years, billions upon billions of oysters were taken from the Bay, taken much faster than they could reproduce, with enormous, long-term, negative repercussions for the Bay's ecology. By 2004, a Maryland oyster harvest that reliably yielded sixteen million bushels a year in the 1970s produced only twenty-six thousand bushels.

With oyster harvests plummeting, state officials, conservation and environmental groups, watermen, and seafood packers became worried. Creating reserves or sanctuaries where no dredging could be done; imposing a rotational harvest system, which opens and closes specific oyster bars in rotation; partitioning areas; and creating a leased bottom fishery are some of the efforts made to restore the Bay's oysters. Meanwhile, concerned scientists were searching for a heartier oyster. None was found.

Instead, one was created.

This was the scientific breakthrough that led to the now-booming business of oyster farming in the Chesapeake, especially in Virginia. Though Maryland has recently been working to update its restrictive leasing laws and laborious application processes, it is still far behind its southern neighbor.

Modern oyster farmers understand that things change, and that change can sometimes be for the better. Oysters are usually farmed throughout the year in submerged or floating cages, often near to the shore, whereas the work of cool-season dredging out on the water is dangerous and grueling. Storms, tides, and winter weather can take a toll on boats and water men’s bodies.. Oyster farming also brings enormous benefits to the local economy, providing steady jobs in many coastal communities when employment levels are often seasonally stunted.

Oyster aquaculture alone will never recreate the massed oyster beds that once covered the Bay's floor and nurtured so many other aquatic creatures. But, oyster farming, done right, clearly lessens the stresses on over-harvested native oysters and will contribute to their gradual restoration. All the while, farmed oysters are contributing to the health of the Bay, filtering the waters of excessive nutrients and encouraging the health of all marine life. Farmers find their cages just brimming with eager little come-alongs, and the waters surrounding oyster farms often sparkle, just like in the days of yore.

Want to try a new oyster recipe? Check out our recent Chesapeake Bite featuring Oysters Canvasback!

Or Single-Fried Oysters!

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