Eastern Oysters

Great Shellfish of the Bay


On January 30, 2020, the Maryland General Assembly overrode Gov. Larry Hogan's 2019 veto of a bill to create a consensus-bsed process to recommend a new fishery management plan for oysters. The legislation has the potential to increase the state's oyster population long-term.
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Since colonial times, the Chesapeake (meaning "great shellfish Bay" in Algonquin) has lost more than 98 percent of its oysters. Gone are the days when oyster reefs posed navigational hazards to Chesapeake Bay explorers or watermen pulled 17 million bushels of oysters each year. Now, Maryland and Virginia watermen and the seafood industry have lost $4 billion in income in the past 30 years alone. But all is not lost.

A two-month Maryland Department of Natural Resources survey conducted in 2011 revealed higher levels of oyster reproduction and a lower mortality rate. In fact, Chesapeake Bay oysters seem to be growing heartier and more robust.

Given that each adult oyster filters and cleans up to 50 gallons of water per day—gobbling up algae, and removing dirt and nitrogen pollution—that's good news for the health of the Chesapeake Bay and for us.

Nitrogen equal to 20,000 bags of fertilizer is removed annually in Harris Creek. That's 12 stacks of bags as tall as the Washington Monument. Graphic credit: copyright Chesapeake Bay Foundation

On Maryland's Eastern Shore, for example, restored oyster reefs in Harris Creek are estimated to remove an amount of nitrogen equivalent to 20,000 bags of fertilizer annually and can filter the entire volume of the creek in less than 10 days during the summer. And because reefs provide important habitat for crabs and fish, researchers estimated mature, restored reefs in the Choptank River will increase total commercial fish and shellfish harvests by 80 percent.

An 80 percent increase in seafood harvest is estimated in Harris Creek compared to pre-oyster-restoration levels.  Graphic credit: copyright Chesapeake Bay Foundation

After a devastating bout with disease in the late 1980s combined with decades of overharvesting, habitat destruction, and water pollution, the oyster was hanging on by a thread. "That was a turning point really," says CBF Fisheries Director Bill Goldsborough, "because up until that point, for the previous 100 years, oysters had supported the most valuable fishery in the Chesapeake Bay."

Now, thanks to increased awareness, extensive restoration efforts such as CBF's citizen oyster-gardening program and reef ball production, resisting the introduction of a non-native oyster species, and favorable weather conditions, there is hope for the mighty oyster yet. Find out more about the state of today's oyster fishery.

Learn more about CBF's oyster restoration efforts.

Support Efforts to Restore Three-Dimensional Reefs to the Bay

SPREAD the word to your neighbors and friends about how important oysters are to the health of the waters and wildlife of the Bay.

SHARE your support for oyster recovery—and especially the unique value of vertical reefs—by writing a letter in your local paper or to state officials responsible for oyster restoration.

VOLUNTEER with CBF's active oyster restoration program by building reef balls, cleaning shells, or becoming an oyster gardener. Visit cbf.org/oysters
for more info.

MAKE A DONATION to support our oyster restoration program by giving the gift of oysters from our online Giving Catalog at cbf.org/catalog.

Multimedia

  • Cheddar the Oyster Gardening Cat

    What are all the cool cats doing these days? They're oyster gardening!

  • Oyster Farming in the Bay

    Oyster farming—the practice of cultivating oysters for food—is a growing part of Maryland and Virginia's economy.

  • Farming Oysters with an Adjustable Longline

    Alex Lambert of Lambert Shellfish demonstrates the adjustable longline technique used in oyster aquaculture.

  • The Value of Oyster Aquaculture in Maryland

    Oyster aquaculture is not only helping the economy throughout the Bay region, it's also helping save the Bay. Learn how Maryland's oyster aquaculture industry has grown and its impact on the Bay and the economy from CBF's Maryland Fisheries Scientist, Allison Colden.

  • Ask an Expert: Why are Oysters Important for the Chesapeake Bay?

    Why is an oyster hard to shuck? How do young oysters choose their homes? What happens when an oyster filters water? CBF’s Maryland Fisheries Scientist Allison Colden gets up close and personal with the Bay’s famous bivalve.

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Oysters Infographic

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What Should be the Role of Oysters in the Bay Cleanup?

The mighty oyster's capacity for removing excess nutrients from our Bay's waters is well known. But is it enough to consider oysters a player in achieving the pollution reductions of the Chesapeake Bay Clean Water Blueprint? A number of factors need to be understood to engage in such a discussion. CBF's position on using oysters to comply with the Bay Total Maximum Daily Load addresses these factors.

Decades of Success: The 1970s

Even as a young organization, our work was effective and got noticed. Find out what we did.

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Save the Bay

Founded in 1967, the Chesapeake Bay Foundation (CBF) is the largest independent conservation organization dedicated solely to saving the Bay.

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