The Chesapeake Bay defines Maryland geographically, historically and culturally. And for millennia, what defined the Chesapeake Bay were oysters. The shellfish were not only an important food for people -- but, more importantly, they were the ecological cornerstone of the living bay, filtering and cleaning the bay’s waters; providing a home for blue crabs, fish and countless other species; and building reefs that were the necessary foundation for the reproduction of more life.
After the Civil War, however, watermen began ripping the lungs out of the bay by using ships to drag heavy metal rakes with bags across the bottom. By 1891, Maryland’s oyster commissioner, Dr. William K. Brooks, began raising alarms that the bay’s seafood industry was not sustainable.
“Everywhere, in France, in Germany, in England, in Canada, and in all northern coast states [of the United States,] history tells the same story,” Brooks wrote. “In all waters where oysters are found at all, they are usually found in abundance. And in all of these places the residents supposed that their natural beds were inexhaustible until they suddenly found that they were exhausted.”