Discovering the Chesapeake: Profiles in Science
The Oyster Dreams of W.K. Brooks
Could science save a seafood industry?
As a student, William K. Brooks studied at Harvard with Louis Agassiz, the Swiss scientist who became one of the founding fathers of the modern scientific tradition. As a biologist on the faculty of the Johns Hopkins University, Brooks became the first great oyster scientist in America and an early (and unsuccessful) advocate for oyster farming in Maryland waters. Credit: courtesy of the Johns Hopkins University
This is the first article
in a series about the pioneers
of Chesapeake Bay science.

IN MAY 1879 A YOUNG BIOLOGIST boarded a steamboat in Baltimore and headed for the Eastern Shore town of Crisfield, Maryland. He hoped to spend the summer figuring out how oysters in the Chesapeake Bay managed to make baby oysters. There were French and German theories about oysters that he wanted to test. And there was also a hope that science could help save a Maryland oyster industry that was facing its first major crisis.

William Keith Brooks was only 30 years old, a short and stout man who often needed a haircut and probably arrived in Crisfield still sporting the bushy brown beard he grew back in graduate school at Harvard. His employer, the Johns Hopkins University, was only three years old, a privately funded school designed to focus on research and graduate studies. For the biologist and his new university, this summer research foray would be a chance to make names for themselves. It would also be the first effort to apply academic science to managing the fisheries of the Chesapeake Bay.

Within two days of his arrival in Crisfield, Brooks would use a simple watch glass and his ever-present microscope to make a discovery that would bring him both fame and notoriety in Maryland. His findings — and his advocacy for those findings — would raise hopes that oyster harvests could be increased a hundredfold in the Chesapeake Bay. There was a snag, of course, a large snag: under the 1884 Brooks plan oyster fishermen would have to give up more space in the Bay for oyster farmers. His plan, after kicking off 130 years of debate, is now getting its first large-scale test in Maryland waters.

The crisis that brought Brooks to Crisfield in 1879 was the recent drop in oyster harvests in the Chesapeake Bay. In the decades after the Civil War, those harvests exploded as watermen discovered huge oyster reefs in Tangier and Pocomoke sounds, and the transcontinental railroads opened new markets in the west. Tongers and dredgers were soon battling each other to mine those new oyster reefs, and both groups were battling the Maryland Oyster Police. During this ongoing scramble, Maryland harvests rose from three million bushels a year in 1861 to 14 million bushels in 1874.

Then came the big slump, the first of many: by 1879, the annual harvest dropped from 14 million to 10 million bushels. Ten million bushels would be a bonanza today when annual harvests usually hover around one percent of that, at 100,000 bushels, but oyster entrepreneurs of the 1870s thought the seafood industry had gone over a cliff.

Could science save this seafood industry? The head of the Maryland Fish Commission hoped so, and he invited Brooks to bring his graduate students from Johns Hopkins down to Crisfield and set up a summer research camp in the heart of oyster country. The year before, Brooks had organized his first summer camp, calling it the Chesapeake Zoological Laboratory and basing it down at the mouth of the Bay. To entice Brooks to Crisfield, the Maryland fish commissioner outfitted his team with a steam yacht equipped for dredging oysters and provided three barges that his team could use for both lodging and lab facilities.

One science question Brooks hoped to answer was: how do oysters reproduce? According to several French and German researchers, oyster eggs were fertilized within the shell of female oysters, and the embryos stayed safe inside long enough to develop tiny shells. Brooks had begun testing that theory during the previous summer camp down at Fort Wool, Virginia. He spent much of his time that session prying open oyster shells without ever finding a single baby oyster lingering in the shell of a single female oyster.

At Crisfield he tried a new approach. On May 21, 1879 he opened a dozen oysters and identified three females filled with eggs and one male ready with ripe sperm. Scraping out the eggs and sperm into a watch glass, he tried mixing them together. And then he set up his microscope. Within two hours, he could see that sperm was fertilizing the eggs floating in the watch glass. "Nearly all my eggs," he wrote, "had been started on their long path toward the adult form."

His finding was revolutionary. Oyster babies were not born inside the shell of females as described by French and German biologists. With the American species, females released their eggs out into the water where, if they were lucky, they met up with sperm released by male oysters. The tiny oyster offspring that emerged out of these meetups then had to survive on their own in the water: there would be no safe harbor inside a mother's shell. "The young of our oyster," wrote Brooks, "swim at large in the open ocean."

The scientific importance of his findings was recognized immediately. A German journal quickly published his science paper. A French scientific society gave him a medal. And in this country, journalists decided the Chesapeake oyster showed truly American traits. Our oyster was "more adventurous" than the European species, wrote one observer. It was more "independent," wrote another. "It refuses to be tied to its mother's apron strings," said a third.

His discovery, it now seems, was an example of a classic paradigm shift in scientific theory. A paradigm is generally defined as a set of unexamined assumptions underlying an accepted theory, assumptions that affect the way scientists see — or fail to see — evidence right in front of their eyes. Boxed in by a pre-existing theory about European oysters, Brooks kept looking for evidence in the wrong place. Only when he began thinking outside the box — or in this case outside the shell — did Brooks make his breakthrough.

Paradigm shifts can be painful. Brooks still had difficulty in believing what he was seeing. Before publishing his findings, Brooks spent much of his time in Crisfield trying to disprove his own discovery. After opening more than 1,000 oysters without finding a single baby inside a mother oyster, Brooks finally announced, "I have accumulated enough evidence to show beyond the possibility of doubt that eggs are fertilized outside the body of the parent."

"Learn to draw," Brooks told his students. In the era before microscopic photographs, Brooks drew what he saw under the microscope or what he dissected on his lab table. He created stunning and detailed illustrations of numerous species. The drawing above shows the internal anatomy of an oyster, including the hinge, the hinge ligament, the muscle, the pericardium, the gills, and the lips. Credit: drawing from The Oyster, by W.K. Brooks, © the Johns Hopkins University, used with permission.

In Maryland his discovery raised hopes for huge oyster harvests in the future. Each female oyster, according to his estimates, could release millions of eggs, and Brooks could usually fertilize 98 percent of the female eggs in his watch glasses and tumblers. Science would still have to solve a number of technical problems before oyster culture could take off, but Brooks believed, rightly so, that they were solvable. "These investigations," said Maryland's fish commissioners, "have placed it within our power to multiply the oyster to an indefinite amount."

Because of his fame the General Assembly asked Brooks to lead the Oyster Commission of the State of Maryland, an effort to investigate an industry suspected of overfishing the state's oyster reefs. His university gave him paid leave, and Brooks went to work trying to apply his biological findings to reorganizing a rambunctious oyster fishery.

The result was his in-depth commission report on the problems and potential of the oyster industry in Maryland. According to Brooks, most of the problems stemmed from overfishing of the natural bars, and most of the potential lay in the expansion of oyster farming. To protect the existing oyster bars, Brooks recommended a series of steps: halting harvests during the breeding season, setting size limits, returning small oysters to the reefs, and dumping shucked shell back in the Bay to create a base where new oysters could settle. If applied, these would have represented first steps towards scientific management of the Bay's wild fishery.

But Brooks had a bigger dream. He wanted to apply the new understanding of oyster biology in ways that would unleash the hidden bounty of the Bay. The state should lease out tracts of the Bay bottom, he said, allowing large private oyster farms in the deeper waters and smaller plots along the shoreline. The payoff, he promised, would be huge: while the sales from oyster fishing brought in $2 million a year in 1880 dollars, the harvest from farming could bring in hundreds of millions, and the tax revenues, he estimated, could pay most of the cost of state government.

It was a bold plan, but it was immediately bedeviled by bad timing. Brooks published his final report of the oyster commission in 1884 — but the next year brought a harvest of 15 million bushels, the highest total in history. The state had called upon Brooks, hoping his science could save the oyster fishery, but the problem seemed to have solved itself without his science and without his farms. So said his critics, and they were numerous and politically powerful.

Brooks, however, kept pushing hard for his plan. His friends described Brooks as quiet and thoughtful — "the shyest man in Baltimore," said one — yet he quickly launched himself into the middle of a heated policy debate. He may, in fact, have been the first Maryland scientist to step beyond the traditional role of academic researcher when he became an advocate for oyster farming and for science-based management of the traditional fishery. To reach non-technical audiences, he wrote articles for Popular Science Monthly, and in 1891 he published The Oyster, a popular summary that laid out in layman's language the biology of the oyster and the potential of farming.

Despite his advocacy, Brooks would see little progress toward oyster farming in his lifetime, even as his prophecies of long-term declines for the wild fishery began coming true. Within five years of his report, the harvest was down to a third of its historic high, but the General Assembly made no move to encourage farming. Anti-leasing forces would manage to cripple every pro-farming initiative attempted, both through political power and poaching, not just during Brooks's era but during the next 130 years.

Why didn't oyster farming catch on in Maryland? In her 2009 book, The Oyster Question, historian Christine Keiner suggests that Brooks misread the culture of Tidewater communities and underestimated their political power. His advocacy for private leasing set up an inevitable clash with long-standing beliefs of watermen, and it was a clash he was bound to lose. Watermen held that the oyster grounds were a commons open to all, an idea reaching back to the Magna Carta. Oyster farming, according to Brooks's various critics, was "a monstrous proposition," a conspiracy between "the scientific fraternity" and corporate cartels, a conspiracy that would privatize the public commons and reduce watermen to wage slaves.

His ideas outlived his enemies, especially his belief that science should be applied to managing the oyster fishery.

In pushing their beliefs, Maryland watermen had political power that reached far beyond their population numbers. Each county in the state had one senator in the General Assembly, and in Maryland that meant the many Tidewater counties, though sparsely populated, could easily outvote the urban areas and the nontidal counties.

There's a sad irony in Brooks's career. His discovery in the summer of 1879 raised hopes that science could help save the oyster industry, but the leasing debate may have derailed the first efforts to apply science to the task of managing the traditional oyster fishery. As harvests continued to slide, the state legislature began adopting some of his recommendations — but slowly and only over the objections of watermen who remained politically powerful and distrustful of scientists. By the time the legislators acted, the horse was already out of the barn. According to the Baltimore Sun, the great reefs were being strip-mined by 8,000 tongboats and 2,000 dredge boats. During Brooks's lifetime, much of the Bay's original oyster stocks were removed.

The loss of the great reefs did more than devastate the economy of the Tidewater region: it also altered the ecology of the Chesapeake ecosystem. Oysters, we now know, played a major role in the ecology of the Bay, filtering out much of the algae and plankton that now cause annual dead zones of low or no oxygen. Compounding the catastrophe were two disease epidemics that arrived in the 1960s, further depleting the already depleted reefs. One hundred years after Brooks published his book, oyster stocks were down to less than one percent of their historic numbers.

For the rest of his life Brooks would remain an advocate of oyster farming, but he focused most of his academic research on basic morphological studies of other marine species, including tunicates, brachiopods, arthropods, and coelenterates. In his last years, his writings turned to philosophical and metaphysical topics that many of his own students found obscure. In 1908, at the age of 60, he died after a nine-month struggle with congenital heart problems that had burdened him all his life.

His ideas, however, outlived his enemies. Perhaps most important was his belief that science should be applied to managing the oyster fishery. Cull limits were introduced, seasons were established, shell return was encouraged. Enforcement became more aggressive. Science-based management is now the stated goal for the state agencies that regulate all the Bay's fisheries.

Another idea that survived was his belief in waterside marine labs. His Chesapeake Zoological Laboratory, created as an annual summer camp, was the first laboratory to focus some of its energies on the Bay. That makes it the forerunner for the half-dozen marine research labs that now perch along the shores and rivers of the Bay. And along the Choptank River, the Horn Point Laboratory operates a hatchery that usually spawns half a billion disease-free oysters a year, applying in large scale the basic biology that Brooks first worked out with his watch glass and microscope.

Brooks's dreams about oyster farming would also survive. In 2010, the governor of Maryland — on the advice of yet another oyster advisory commission — announced major plans to encourage oyster farming in the waters of Maryland's Chesapeake Bay. New legislation removed long-standing legal blocks to private leasing of Bay bottom and established new oyster sanctuaries carved out of the traditional harvest grounds of the wild fishery. And more than a century after Brooks died, the state of Maryland began to organize new workshops to train watermen on how to finally become oyster farmers.

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