An oyster's place in history

They lack the blue crab's personality, don't fight like rockfish and aren't as plentiful as menhaden.

Yet oysters are perhaps the Chesapeake Bay's most celebrated seafood.

They provided protein to settlers who arrived at Jamestown in 1607 during a drought that nearly wiped out the colony.

Exploring the bay a year later, British Capt. John Smith wrote that oysters "lay as thick as stones."

Scientists believe oysters began forming in the bay around 8,000 B.C. The relative lack of people — only 24,000 Native Americans by the 1500s, according to the Chespeake Bay Program — allowed oyster reefs to flourish for centuries.

Their abundance — and the fact that they don't swim away when pursued by humans — made oysters an easy food choice for Native Americans and settlers.

A fishery developed before the nation declared its independence and by 1800 Virginia and Maryland had a combined 7,600 oyster boats, according to the bay program.

The industry peaked in the decades following the Civil War supplying almost half of the world's oysters, according to the Maryland Department of Natural Resources. Oyster were so plentiful that shells were used to build roads and driveways.

During this time, a series of sometimes violent clashes between pirates, law enforcement and watermen made the fishery dangerous yet irresistible to those seeking fortune.

The so-called "Oyster Wars" lasted well into the 20th century when the fishery began to decline due to overfishing, loss of habitat and a growing pollution problem.

There was still ample work for the bay's oyster houses, where mostly women shucked the meat from the shell. Thousands of watermen prospered, too. Many abandoned hand tongs for dredges — steel baskets that drag along the bay bottom — to catch oysters.

But the machinery, plus the onset of deadly diseases in the 1950s, further crippled the industry. It bottomed out in the early 1990s, when Virginia regulators temporarily banned harvesting to preserve what remained of the oyster population.

Shucking houses disappeared as watermen took jobs on tugs and onshore. And while oysters are recovering, they are only at 2 percent of their historic population, according to the bay program.

But there are reasons to be optimistic.

Government agencies and environmental groups are building oyster sanctuaries — reefs that are off-limits to harvesting. The hope is that the reefs will expand, providing habitat for fish and other marine life. Oysters, meanwhile, will filter the bay's poor water.

Also, oyster farming is booming largely due to the success of a genetically modified oyster that reaches maturity before diseases kill it. Its success has those in the industry thinking once again the world may be their oyster.