Chesapeake Quarterly
Book Review
Maryland's Oysters: Thirteen Decades of Debate
Cover of The Oyster Question showing two men using tongs

The Oyster Question: Scientists, Watermen, and the Maryland Chesapeake Bay since 1880, by Christine Keiner, The University of Georgia Press, 2009.

WHEN THE GOVERNOR OF MARYLAND made it known that he was going to make the "oyster question" a top priority of his administration, his friend John Carroll wrote him a quick note.

"How you are going to satisfy the diversified interests and ideas of the Oystermen, God only knows and I do not envy the man who undertakes the job."

The governor in question was Albert C. Ritchie. The year was 1927. The unsolvable political morass was Maryland's oyster fishery and, more specifically, the battle between watermen and those advocating the private leasing of Maryland's oyster grounds. Governor Ritchie's plans to push through progressive oyster management did not go well. A journalist later commented that the governor's push for private oyster leases was such a political disaster that "No politician is likely to suggest it in a long time."

But of course politicians have suggested it, most recently Governor Martin O'Malley.

How this debate evolved over many decades takes center stage in Christine Keiner's The Oyster Question: Scientists, Watermen, and the Maryland Chesapeake Bay since 1880.

Keiner, in sharp detail, lays out the tangled history of Maryland's oysters — not only the leasing controversy, but the hunt for them, the struggle to manage them, the battle to bring them back.

The Oyster Question depicts early frictions between small-time tongers and dredge boat captains who often worked for rich bosses in Baltimore. Keiner tracks the flow of northern capital that led to booming packing plants and to railroads that connected them with the rest of the nation.

A major theme running through this 300-plus-page exposition is that Bay scientists and watermen have not seen each other very clearly across the wide waters of class and experience. She argues that early academicians like William K. Brooks alienated Maryland's oystermen by preaching the gospel of privatization. It's hard to debate Brooks's main point that blind greed essentially decimated the oyster reefs that were the region's "God-given birthright." But according to Keiner, watermen thought private leasing smacked of control by the processors. Oyster processors, they argued, already held the upper hand — at times owning the marinas, the ship's stores, and the gas pumps essential for a watermen's work. According to one tonger at the time, if you didn't sell oysters to the local processor, he wouldn't sell you gas.

The Oyster Question reaches beyond the purely political or economic to probe the oyster's rich place in our history. One of the book's main arguments is that Maryland's oyster past is not a simple case of the "tragedy of the commons." Instead, Keiner holds that Maryland's communal (state-run) shell planting program and its strict rules requiring old-time tools like tongs and sailing skipjacks actually maintained a fairly stable fishery for much of the 20th century — right up to the mid-1980s. That's when drought brought oyster diseases riding a high salinity wedge up the Bay into Maryland.

She concludes that many advocates for a more modernized oyster fishery failed to realize that for independent oystermen the fishery was not "just about the money." Only in recent years have scientists and watermen benefited from some efforts by anthropologists and others to bridge the conceptual gaps between them. Those discussions have centered not only on economics but also on basic assumptions and core values.

Keiner argues that the Chesapeake Bay nurtures more than the heritage of watermen, their families, and their communities. It also stands as a final piece of the American frontier, "a place at the edge of civilization."

Keiner's book is well researched, well thought out, and well written. Her attention to detail is impressive. Every library with marine-related holdings should have a copy. Indeed, for anyone wanting the deep backstory on Maryland's colorful oyster past, The Oyster Question is itself something of a treasure.

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