Oysters are back in town!

Did you know that in 1970 the Chesapeake Bay, although containing only five percent of the nation’s shoreline, produced nearly forty-six percent of the United States oyster harvest? Stretching over the line between Maryland and Virginia, the Bay has two distinct areas of water that have been vital to the oyster production.

However pollution, human activities, and lack of management have diminished this bountiful Bay and rendered it almost useless. Over the years predators, disease, and pollution have plagued the southern section of the Bay, off Virginia’s shore, and its oysters. The northern section across Maryland’s shoreline, although relatively free from these problems except pollution, lacks the resources needed for the oyster seed rejuvenation.

So now that you know this, would you believe me if I told you that forty-five years later, located in Harris Creek on Maryland’s Eastern Shore, stretching farther than the National Mall now lies the world’s largest oyster bed? With help from the Army Corps, the National Oceanic and Atmospheric Administration, and the Nature Conservancy, they were able to stock 10 reefs with over one billion oysters!


Photos by the Chesapeake Bay Program

The oysters are not only valuable for Maryland’s economy, but they also filter pollutants out of the Chesapeake Bay and are essential to the ecosystem. “A 2013 study showed that in one year, a reef seeded with oysters by the state of Maryland — about 130 oysters per square meter — removed 20 times more nitrogen pollution that flows from everything from lawns to farm in fertilizer” says Darryl Fears in his recent article for the Washington Post. They also consume and control algae populations that have been known to deplete water bodies of oxygen, producing dead zones. Fears says “As a result of oxygen depletion and other impacts, the bay is in the midst of an aggressive multibillion-dollar, 15-year federal cleanup that ends in 2025”.



Pictures by The Chesapeake Bay Program

However the oysters’ journey to the bay was not a simple task. The whole operation started out at Horn Point Laboratory, which is run by the University of Maryland’s Center for Environmental Science. After coaxing the adult oysters to mate, the fertilized eggs (known as “spat”) are hand fed a variety of algae until they are mature enough to attach to shells.


The problem with this is that since the decline in oysters, finding enough oyster shells to accommodate the spat was almost impossible. According to Fear’s “overfishing has dropped the number of oysters caught in the bay from some 15 million in the 1800s to about 4 million in the 1950s and only about 900,000 in recent years”. To make up for this the Oyster Recovery Partnership of Maryland collected spent shells from all over the country. They contracted with businesses and restaurants from Maryland, Virginia, the District and even Louisiana to send them as many used shells as they could find. Once they were able to successfully collect enough shells, the spat matured and was shipped to Harris Creek. This whole process in itself was no easy task but it has now been accomplished! Looks like the Chesapeake Bay will have a bright future after all.


– Greer E. Darden


Alford, J. J. (1975). THE CHESAPEAKE OYSTER FISHERY. Annals Of The Association Of American Geographers, 65(2), 229-239.


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