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.