Around 35 million years ago life was humming along in the Chesapeake Bay when BAM, a meteor struck in the area of Cape Charles, VA. This one to three mile wide meteor exploded in its descent through the atmosphere before crashing down. Within seconds a depression 17 miles across was created. The depression formed a basin that gradually expanded to 56 miles across, as the water inside repeatedly froze and thawed – creating the Chesapeake Bay. (USGS Fact Sheet 049-98)

Fast forward 34+ million years. As global sea levels rose, the Chesapeake’s rivers and channels were carved out. Coastal wetlands and hardwood forests characterized the Bay area 11,000 years ago when Native Americans began to colonize the area. The oyster, an important component of the Bay’s ecology today, began to colonize local waters alongside fish around 5,000 years ago. (The Oyster in Chesapeake History, Dr. Henry Miller)

When in 1608 Englishman John Smith departed Jamestown, VA the first English colony in the States, to explore the Chesapeake Bay. He described the Bay as a place “heaven and earth seemed never to have agreed better to frame a piece for man’s commodious and delightful habitation.” Smith, of course, was not the first to stumble across the 4,400 square mile Bay — many Native Americans had already populated its margins. The name Chesapeake translates from the Native American language to mean “mother of waters” or “great shellfish bay.” Later the area around the Bay became populated with settlers who took advantage of its waters bursting with oysters. As the local population grew, so did the popularity of the oyster – oyster harvests peaked in the late 1800’s. (The Oyster in Chesapeake History, Dr. Henry Miller)

  • 1608 — John Smith wrote oysters lay as “thick as stones” 

  • 1880’s – 17,000,000+ oyster bushels/year harvested

  • 2016 — 400,000 oyster bushels/year harvested.

One constant in the Chesapeake Bay over the last 100+ years – oysters are important. While in the past they were loved both by watermen harvesting them and consumers relishing their salty taste, today we have an additional reason to love them. They help us clean the Bay!

In 2016, the Bay watershed was home to 18.1 million people – 6.08 million in Maryland. Development pressure on the Bay watershed is enormous — we love living, fishing, recreating, and farming near the Bay and we consequently compromise its water quality. The three major contributors to the poor water quality of our streams, rivers, and the Bay – nitrogen, phosphorus, and sediment are a tough pollution mix to combat. The 83,000 farms located in the Bay watershed (8/9/18 Bay Journal) contribute nitrogen pollution to the Bay (45% according to the CBF website), yet air pollution, stormwater runoff, and wastewater treatment are also major contributors. Since most of us are part of creating the waste stream for the latter three items – our daily habits can help curb pollution from these three!

Oysters help clean up Bay waters since they are filter feeders. They pump water through their gills, trapping particles of food as well as nutrients, suspended sediments and chemical contaminants (Chesapeake Bay Program). Whether you personally like eating oysters or not, they filter more than 50 gallons of water in a single day!  Next time you enjoy an oyster with a dash of horseradish, appreciate the job they are doing to help clean up the Bay!

[Note: Many news stories have appeared recently concerning heavy trash and sediment loads in the Bay resulting from frequent storms and water releases from the Conowingo Dam. Though this blog was prepared prior to these storms, the relevance of an oyster’s ability to improve water quality  is all the more relevant.]

by Bill Morgante.  Ethan Glaudemans, UMD Class of 2019, contributed reporting & research