The State of Today's Oyster Fishery


Update: The Maryland Department of Natural Resources presented part of its first-ever state oyster stock assessment on November 19, 2018. The results found that oyster populations in Maryland declined by more than half in the past 20 years, from about 600 million market-size oysters in 1999 to fewer than 300 million in early 2018. Read More

The Chesapeake Bay's oyster fishery reached its height in the late nineteenth century, but unrestrained harvest destroyed the tall reefs that had accumulated over millennia, while pollution and disease drove the stock further down. Fifty years ago, the catch still ranked third among all commercial harvest in the Chesapeake, but it crashed in the 1990s and ‘00s. On the bright side, the harvests have bounced back modestly, exceeding one million bushels total in the 2014-15 and 2015-16 seasons. Virginia’s private harvest, including aquaculture, is growing strongly, but Maryland’s is lagging, and both public (wild) harvests vary but remain much smaller than they were as recently as the 1970s. Today the two-state harvest has risen back to fourth place in the Bay’s fisheries, but the current harvest is still less than five percent of what it was before 1850, and the Bay’s ecological need for this filter feeder demands major restoration.

As with menhaden, there is now a growing realization that oysters provide much more than seafood. They filter the Bay’s water by grazing algae, while their shells build reefs that offer important habitat in much the same way that corals do in warmer waters. The nooks and crannies of these reefs provide spaces for communities of small worms, crustaceans, mud crabs, fish, and other invertebrate animals that form the bases for many of the Chesapeake’s deep-water food webs. Scientists refer to these reefs as keystone communities, critical components in a healthy Bay. The degradation of the reefs by dredging them flat over the past century and a half has played an important role in their decline.

Finally, though, there is some better oyster news emerging. Good spat sets (baby oysters attaching to shells of more mature oysters) in 2010, 2012, and 2015 are part of the story, but good survival of those oysters is even bigger news. Heightened mortality from disease has hurt the Bay’s oysters since the 1960s, but there is growing evidence that the survivors are developing genetic disease tolerance and passing it on to their offspring, at least in certain parts of the Bay.

Oyster reef restoration programs have ramped up in recent years and appear to be boosting the population, while exporting spat (baby oysters) to waters open for harvest. State and federal efforts are focusing on creating healthy reef systems in target tributaries, an enlightened strategy that should be continued. At present, those target tributaries include the Lafayette, Lynnhaven, Piankatank, Great Wicomico, and lower York Rivers in Virginia. In Maryland, the targeted tributaries are the Choptank (specifically Harris Creek and the Tred Avon River), the Little Choptank, and the Potomac (specifically the upper St. Mary’s River and Breton Bay).

More About Oysters

  • Eastern Oysters

    Chesapeake Bay oysters are rebounding due to restoration efforts and harvesting restrictions.


  • Photo of the Week: Legacy

    Oyster shells on the Chesapeake Bay at low tide, during the golden hour, in Mathews County, VA.

  • 10 Billion Oysters for a Clean Chesapeake Bay

    In this episode, CBF President Will Baker, National Aquarium President John Racanelli, University of Maryland Center for Environmental Science President Emeritus Dr. Don Boesch, and Hoopers Island Oyster Company Founder Johnny Shockley announce a very exciting partnership to place ten billion new oysters in Chesapeake Bay by 2025.

  • Chillin’ in the Water as They’re Filter Feedin’

    Check out CBF's Virginia Oyster Restoration Manager, Jackie Shannon, performing her original Oyster Rap!

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  • The Snowball Effect

    In this episode, CBF President Will Baker talks with 90-year-old volunteer Walter Zadan about his valuable work supporting oyster restoration.

  • The Incredible Oyster

    In this episode, CBF President Will Baker talks with Maryland Fisheries Scientist Allison Colden about the state of the Chesapeake native oyster.

  • Seeding Our Future

    CBF President Will Baker talks with Jackie Shannon and Heather North, experts from CBF's Virginia oyster restoration center, about rebuilding the Bay's living water treatment centers.

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