Millennial-scale sustainability of the Chesapeake Bay Native American oyster fishery

Proc Natl Acad Sci U S A. 2016 Jun 7;113(23):6568-73. doi: 10.1073/pnas.1600019113. Epub 2016 May 23.


Estuaries around the world are in a state of decline following decades or more of overfishing, pollution, and climate change. Oysters (Ostreidae), ecosystem engineers in many estuaries, influence water quality, construct habitat, and provide food for humans and wildlife. In North America's Chesapeake Bay, once-thriving eastern oyster (Crassostrea virginica) populations have declined dramatically, making their restoration and conservation extremely challenging. Here we present data on oyster size and human harvest from Chesapeake Bay archaeological sites spanning ∼3,500 y of Native American, colonial, and historical occupation. We compare oysters from archaeological sites with Pleistocene oyster reefs that existed before human harvest, modern oyster reefs, and other records of human oyster harvest from around the world. Native American fisheries were focused on nearshore oysters and were likely harvested at a rate that was sustainable over centuries to millennia, despite changing Holocene climatic conditions and sea-level rise. These data document resilience in oyster populations under long-term Native American harvest, sea-level rise, and climate change; provide context for managing modern oyster fisheries in the Chesapeake Bay and elsewhere around the world; and demonstrate an interdisciplinary approach that can be applied broadly to other fisheries.

Keywords: archaeological shellfish; environmental management; fossil shellfish; historical baseline; marine fisheries.

Publication types

  • Historical Article
  • Research Support, Non-U.S. Gov't
  • Research Support, U.S. Gov't, Non-P.H.S.

MeSH terms

  • Animals
  • Bays
  • Conservation of Natural Resources*
  • Crassostrea* / anatomy & histology
  • Fisheries / history*
  • History, 15th Century
  • History, 16th Century
  • History, 17th Century
  • History, 18th Century
  • History, 19th Century
  • History, 20th Century
  • History, 21st Century
  • History, Ancient
  • History, Medieval
  • Humans
  • Indians, North American