Courtesy Chesapeake Bay Foundation/CBF Staff
Oyster restoration work along the Lafayette River, part of the Chesapeake Bay system. As researchers looked for the best ways to promote sustainability, they found that ancient indigenous ways were the most efficient at keeping the ecosystem healthy, ensuring a high population and large oysters.

Indigenous Ecology on the Half Shell: Native Methods Preserve Chesapeake Oysters

Steve Russell

A new interdisciplinary study of oystering in Chesapeake Bay covers the entire history and prehistory of human impact on the oyster beds and concludes that the most sustainable harvesting methods were those practiced by American Indians before colonization.

Like the health of the food chain in the ocean depends on the living creatures that make up coral reefs, the health of estuaries depends on oysters. Estuaries are where rivers meet the sea, and the collision between fresh and salt water at a point that moves with the tides and with the river flow creates a unique nutrient-rich environment that feeds fish and birds and, ultimately, human beings.

Modern science tells us that the health of oysters tells us the health of the estuaries that are their habitat. This is why oysters demand that humans make more weighty decisions that whether to have them fried or on the half shell. In addition to telling how clean the water is, oysters help to clean it. During their life cycles, oysters function as living water filters.

Twenty-two of the 32 largest cities in the world are located on estuaries. Before the European invasion, the mouths of rivers were good places for hunting and fishing and, in the land around estuaries that flooded every season, agriculture. After the invasion, the same places became seaports, because the rivers were the cheapest way to ship trade goods in and out of the so-called New World.

Population brings pollution, and keeping the estuaries healthy is a continuing struggle. As the ecosystem that is the Chesapeake Bay deteriorated and that deterioration was reflected in the skimpy oyster harvest, the Smithsonian Institution convened an interdisciplinary team of scientists to examine how—if at all—oysters could be taken in a sustainable manner.

The team of 15, led by Smithsonian anthropologists Torben C. Rick and Leslie A. Reeder-Myers, has reported on a study that analyzed oyster production and harvesting back to the time when humans did not take oysters, in the Pleistocene epoch 13,000 years ago. Published in the April issue of Proceedings of the National Academy of Sciences, the report concludes that the best hope for rebuilding the Chesapeake oyster beds and maintaining them in a sustainable way is to adopt some of the practices pioneered by the Indigenous Peoples of the area.

The Indians, the Smithsonian study found, had managed to harvest oysters while still allowing the oysters to replenish themselves in spite of a changing climate, a rising sea level, and a growing population of human beings consuming the oysters.

Some of the best practices identified in the study, modern factory oystermen will be quick to point out, were dictated by lack of technology. The most controversial practice that needs to be curtailed is dredging for oysters, dragging a heavy metal net along the sea floor that will dislodge and capture any living thing it encounters. The “catch” may include animals and plants of no immediate use for human beings but critical to the ecosystem of the bay.

The Indians may have harvested oysters by hand or with simple tools because simple tools were all they had, but that does not change the overkill aspect of dredging. Another decision driven by available technology is that Indians seldom took oysters from deeper waters, leaving great swaths of oyster habitat untouched, places where the oysters could mature and play out their role as nature’s water filters.

Other indigenous practices recommended for reintroduction were dictated not by technology, but by common sense. The Indians would rotate among oyster beds, taking from this one now and that one next year, allowing time for the population to recover between harvests.

Another common sense practice could have been pulled directly out of the colonists’ sacred text, but for some reason the colonists failed to apply it to oystering:

To everything, there is a season. And a time to every purpose under heaven.

As Pacific Standard pointed out in a report on the Smithsonian study, the Indians before 1600 understood there was a time to grow domesticated plants, a time to gather wild plants, a time to hunt deer and a time to gather oysters. The study does not speculate on whether the rotation was driven by ceremonial cycles, but if it was, the ceremonial cycles themselves probably came from observing the plants and animals critical to human life.

By all these methods, the Indigenous Peoples of the Chesapeake Bay area were able to harvest oysters for thousands of years with no difference in the size of the oysters. This is the very essence of sustainable harvest.

These ideas for a sustainable oyster harvest cannot coexist with, as Pacific Standard put it, our demand for “whatever food we want whenever we want it, regardless of the season.”

If the modern settler state cannot find a way to accommodate the indigenous practices that let the deep water beds grow and reproduce and let the shallow water beds recuperate between harvests, then the modern settler state will have to give up consuming oysters and protecting the estuarial ecosystem.

As the oysters go, so goes the estuary. Loss of the estuary would mean destruction of substantial food supplies in addition to oysters. Unless humans turn their backs on the shellfish that have been food for thousands of years, the choices will be sustainable harvest or no harvest.

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