The Jewels and the Workhorse
of the Chesapeake
By Kimbra Cutlip
erhaps no other creature of the Bay can claim
such a storied history as the Eastern Oyster. For
centuries it was the bedrock that underpinned
both the environment and the economy of the
When I moved to Maryland 20 years ago, oysters were
just something I’d seen on a menu. But I landed in
Galesville, a town that had thrived on the bounty of the
Chesapeake. Signs of the oyster were everywhere, from
the chalky, crushed shell driveways to the rusty gallon-sized cans bearing the label of Woodfield’s oyster packing plant. I quickly learned that Crassostrea virginica, the
stony jewel of the Chesapeake, defines the cultural heritage of this region. Until the 1980s, it was the most
valuable fishery in the Bay.
Rising from the bottom, sometimes 30 feet to the sur-
face, mounds of oysters once formed great reefs
throughout the Chesapeake Bay and its tributaries.
Currents passed over and around these reefs like wind
around mountains, churning oxygen from the surface
down into deeper waters.