A brief history of oysters in the Chesapeake Bay

An employee of the Hollywood Oyster Company shows a fresh oyster.

2500 B.C.: The earliest evidence of oyster harvesting — shell deposits called middens — indicate that people living in the Chesapeake region were eating oysters and other shellfish as long as early as 2,500 B.C.

1600s: Early colonial settlers frequently remark on the size and quantity of oysters in the Chesapeake Bay. Oysters were likely harvested using boats, rakes and by wading into shallow water to simply gather them.


1700s: Around 1700, oyster harvesters began using tongs to retrieve oysters from the water.

Early 1800s: New England fishermen bring dredging equipment to rapidly harvest oysters from the bay.


1820s: Baltimore begins canning oysters. And in 1820, Maryland banned the use of dredging equipment.

1830: Maryland passes legislation allowing only Maryland residents to harvest oysters in local waters.

1839: One of the first oyster harvest estimates indicates that 700,000 bushels were harvested in Maryland in 1839; this number doubled over the next two decades.

1865: Oyster dredging is again legalized in Maryland, and the oyster harvest in Maryland jumped to 5 million bushels.

1880s: Oyster production peaks; estimates range from 14 million to 20 million bushels harvested from the bay each year.

Late 1800s: The "Oyster Wars" begin, with "oyster pirates" and legal watermen in Maryland and Virginia fighting over harvesting rights in the Chesapeake Bay. The disputes will not end until the mid-20th century.

1890s-1900s: New state laws seek to improve some of the poor working conditions in the oyster industry. At the same time, harvests begin to decline as oysters are overfished and the shells are not returned to the water to create new attachment sites.

1950s-1960s: New diseases emerge in the Chesapeake, further damaging the oyster population.


1970s-1990s: After somewhat stabilizing during the late 1960s and 1970s, the oyster population drops again during the 1980s and 1990s. In the mid-1980s, the bay's polluted, low-oxygen "dead zones" are identified.

1993: The Oyster Roundtable — a group of organizations, institutions, elected officials, businesses and individuals in Maryland — is convened to address concerns about the state's oyster population. The result is an action plan for oyster recovery and the founding, in 1994, of the Oyster Recovery Partnership.

1999: A combination of drought and disease starting in 1999 leads to another drastic downturn in Maryland's oyster population.

2009: Oyster farming on leased water bottom is legalized in Maryland.

2010: Maryland passes the Oyster Restoration and Aquaculture Development Plan, designating 24 percent of the oyster habitat in the bay as off-limits for harvesting.

2013: The first harvests of Maryland-farmed oysters become available.


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Fun facts about oysters

Next time you belly up to the raw bar, impress your buddies — and the shucker — with these tidbits about Chesapeake oysters.

Native species: Native Chesapeake oysters are the species Crassostrea virginica, commonly called eastern, Atlantic or Virginia oysters. They are native not only to the bay but up and down the Eastern Seaboard and in the Gulf of Mexico.

Chesapeake seed: According to oyster folklore, in the early 1800s, a New York businessman named Joseph Avery planted seed oysters from the Chesapeake in the Great South Bay, naming his new oysters "Bluepoints" after his hometown of Blue Point. The name bluepoint has persisted; it is still one of the most widely recognized types of Eastern oyster.

Warm it up: In his book "The Big Oyster: History on the Half Shell," Mark Kurlansky explains that oysters grow faster in warmer water. As a result, Chesapeake Bay oysters are typically larger than those from northern climates — but smaller than oysters from the South.

It's in the name: The word "Chesapeake" is derived from the Algonquin word "Chesipiook," meaning "Great Shellfish Bay."


No pearls: The Crassostrea virginica species is not a pearl-producing oyster, but when shucking at home, you may come across a small crab or a mussel inside a fresh oyster.