brown bumpy exterior shells of oysters under the light reflection of water

Oysters are making a comeback on menus and in the water—for now

In the Chesapeake Bay, the once decimated oyster industry is having a renaissance. But the effects of climate change are a looming threat for farmers and oyster lovers.

Male and female oysters are used to spawn baby oysters at this University of Maryland hatchery. In 2019, unprecedented levels of melting snow and falling rain made the Choptank River, the lab's water source, too fresh for brackish-loving oysters to survive. Climate change is increasing precipitation in the mid-Atlantic, making freshwater events like this more likely.

A 1913 issue of National Geographic called the Chesapeake Bay the “greatest oyster ground in the world,” declaring Baltimore its capital. The bay was once so densely populated by the eastern oyster, Crassostrea virginica, it’s said that the hulls of early European boats sailing up the Chesapeake were scraped by the shells.

Over a century ago, the oyster sparked a harvesting frenzy in the mid-Atlantic. At the local oyster industry’s peak during the late 19th century, more than 20 million bushels of oysters were pulled from the Chesapeake Bay every year. But in the decades that followed, oystermen harvested more quickly than the oyster could reproduce, and they did so with large, scraping tools that transformed craggy reefs into muddy substrates in which oysters couldn’t survive.

By 2005, the National Marine Fisheries Service considered placing the eastern oyster on the endangered species list. Today, oyster populations are still less than one percent of their former numbers.

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