Oyster Wars of the Chesapeake Bay by John R. Wennersten

Read: May 15 - May 16
Format: Paperback 136 pages
Source: Public Library
Subject: Oysters
Challenges: 101020, 75 Book, SYLL, TIOLI
Category: Full Course Meal
Genre: History
Stars: 3

In the state of Maryland, oysters rank along with the blue crab as a state treasure. So it's not surprising that in the 19th century there were disagreements over the ownership of the oyster beds along the shores of the Chesapeake Bay.

This book tells the history of the oyster harvests after the Civil War. There were two basic ways to harvest oysters at that time - dredging and tonging and the watermen fought viciously over the rights of the oyster beds. Legislation was passed where the dredgers were to stay away from the coastlines and rivers harvesting only in the main bay area while the tongers were restricted to the coastline. The State of Maryland commissioned the Oyster Navy of Maryland to patrol the bay and prevent infractions. Just as in a war, there were "blockade runners" who dredged at the coastline or tonged in the bay.

Besides the friction between the dredgers and tongers there were quarrels between Maryland and Virginia. In 1785 George Washington and James Madison had called together a conference between the two states which finally agreed on the Compact of 1785 where MD and VA were granted equal access to the Pocomoke Sound.

Twice the Supreme Court was called upon to settle disagreements between MD and VA concerning the oyster beds. In 1876, the decision in McCready v. VA the court stated that VA's right to exclude Marylanders from the sound was "based not on citizenship but upon the prerogative of her collective ownership of the oysters." Then in 1894 in Wharton v. Wise the court held that the Pocomoke Sound was a separate body of water not covered by the Compact of 1785 and that MD had no right to oysters on the VA side.

Today we hear about pollution and how it is affecting the harvests in the Chesapeake Bay. Even in the 19th century there were issues concerning the overharvesting of the oyster beds. But the watermen at that time wouldn't listen to the warnings. They harvested 10 times as many bushels as we do today and have threatened the future of the Chesapeake Bay oyster. Lets hope we can listen a little bit better.

Editorial: I really enjoyed learning more about my own state and something I enjoy eating. This book was written in 1978 so I think I will have to do a little research to see where the oyster beds stand today. So every time you gobble up one of those scrumptious little bivalves think about all the men who fought to keep them coming.

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