Oystering from New York to Boston
The American Maritime Library, Volume 7
John M. Kochiss
published for Mystic Seaport, Inc. by Wesleyan University Press, Middletown CT

This is a serious overview of what was once a major industry. The colonists found oyster reefs in many bays and most river estuaries, and the devastation began. By the mid 1700s laws were being passed to (ineffectually) protect the oyster beds. There was general interest in and knowledge of the industry all through the 18th and 19th centuries, with protection and conservation always too little, too late. There were hundeds of oyster shops in Boston and New York through the 19th century, from simple to elegant, plus side walk vendors and door-to-door oyster peddlars. Oysters served partly as the century's version of fast-food, and were served dozens of ways.

The Chesapeake Bay oyster reefs dwarf all the other oyster grounds, but this book focuses only on the northern fishery, in which New York and Connecticut were the major sources, Rhode Island and Massachusetts running way behind, and almost none in New Hampshire and Maine.

Oysters have very exacting habitat requirements. They grow in shallow dilute seawater, from tide flats to perhaps 50 feet, but they only spawn when the temperature is right, when the salinity is right, when the depth is right, when nutrient conditions are right. And for the fertilized embryos to grow there must be proper algae to eat, then there must be old shells on a firm bottom for the "spat" to attach to. Spawning and setting were and are unpredictable. The colonists didn't understand the requirement for old shells, and after they did there was competition with the lime-making industry.

I knew that the famous oyster beds of Welfleet MA had collapsed, and assumed it was due to the construction of the railroad dike, which blocked the tidal flows. But no - the oysters suddenly gave out in 1775, a century before the railroad was built. But the colonists had strip-mined the rich soil they found on Cape Cod, and the rest blew away. Perhaps that came to a head in 1775. Yet Wellfleet oysters (brought to grow there from Buzzard's Bay and Chesapeake Bay and elsewhere) were famous for another century or more, so the sea itself was still supporting growth, but not spawning or setting.

There was a hodge-podge of laws to prevent over-taking of a dwindling resource - restrictions on when they could be taken, by whom, and where. But as the natural beds declined, the oystermen learned to take tiny oysters from prolific natural beds and grow them in their home waters. Most of the oysters taken from the mid-19th century until now were grown this way. The cultivation is hard work and expensive, so the oysters could not be free to all takers, and a system of sea-floor grants developed. I was surprised to read that the arguments between waterfront property owners and shellfishers, and between commom-landers and private-leasers was already going on 150 years ago.

The author believes that the grant system works well, as long as the regulations are reasonable and not restricted to local inhabitants. He condemns short-sighted fishermen, politicians and industrialists. I think he needs a broader perspective on changing land usage - forest clearing, farming, river damming, industry - simply blaming "pollution" for the oyster's decline is unclear and insufficient. And the impact of oyster cultivation on other sea life is ignored.

Much of the book focuses on the vessels used in the industry. At first skiffs and dugout canoes were used, when the beds were in the oystermen's front yards. Then centerboard sailboats were used as the oystermen had to get to more distant and deeper beds. Steam, gasoline and deisel power was used after that, but laws often led to the use of anachronistic craft and techniques for decades after they would otherwise have been retired, particularly for working the natural beds. Some dugout canoes were still in use for oystering in Connecticut until WWI!

A mediocre adolescent fiction set in the Chesapeake oyster beds is The Christian Pirate, 1911. The state has begun regulating the over-fished industry. "Dredgers" are banned from the shallow beds reserved for "tongers", but some dredgers fish there anyway, and these are the pirates. The police have boats, too, but it has been common for the pirates to escape to the shallows, creeks, and islands that are their backyard. The penalties are severe, and both sides are very heavily armed. my review

Why don't we eat oysters now? Not much analysis. Depleted stocks, changing tastes, contamination scandals and better jobs for the potential oystermen elsewhere are factors he mentions.

There are many illustrations, old photos, and boat schematics (or whatever those technical drawings of a boat's lines are called). As usual for a sea-focused book, there's lots of obscure nautical jargon and little definition of it, eg "gaff cats, regular jib and mainsail sloops, skipjack rigged". A significant criticism is that the time frame of some matters being described is frequently unclear.

There are chapters on the oyster processing and shipping industry: oysters were so common that special patented reusable containers were used for shipping the shelled meat. There is an appendix at the end listing all known oystering vessels, a bibliography, and a small glossary.

David Kew
Sept 9, 2002

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Interesting article, with info on the destruction of the oyster reefs:

Historical Overfishing and the Recent Collapse of Coastal Ecosystems Jeremy B. C. Jackson, Michael X. Kirby, Wolfgang H. Berger, Karen A. Bjorndal, Louis W. Botsford, Bruce J. Bourque, Roger H. Bradbury, Richard Cooke, Jon Erlandson, James A. Estes, Terence P. Hughes, Susan Kidwell, Carina B. Lange, Hunter S. Lenihan, John M. Pandolfi, Charles H. Peterson, Robert S. Steneck, Mia J. Tegner, and Robert R. Warner Science 2001 July 27; 293: 629-637. (in Review)