Eroding Late Holocene Native American oyster midden are seen at low tide in Maryland’s Fishing Bay. Photo by Torben Rick

MD - Indigenous peoples have shucked billions of oysters sustainably

A new global study of Indigenous oyster fisheries co-led by Smithsonian’s National Museum of Natural History anthropologist Torben Rick and Temple University anthropologist and former Smithsonian postdoctoral fellow Leslie Reeder-Myers shows that oyster fisheries were hugely productive and sustainably managed on a massive scale over hundreds and even thousands of years of intensive harvest.

The study’s broadest finding was that long before European colonizers arrived, the Indigenous groups in these locations harvested and ate immense quantities of oysters in a manner that did not appear to cause the bivalves’ populations to suffer and crash.

The research, published May 3 in “Nature Communications,” suggests that studying these ancient, sustainable fisheries offers insights to help restore and manage estuaries today. Further, the authors write that these findings make plain that Indigenous peoples in these locations had deep connections to oysters and that their living descendants are long overdue to be involved in decisions about how to manage what is left of this precious coastal resource.

In places like the Chesapeake Bay, San Francisco Bay and Botany Bay near Sydney, oysters exist at tiny fractions of their former numbers. Oyster numbers declined in these places due to boom and bust exploitation—beginning with European colonizers establishing commercial fisheries that quickly raked in huge quantities of oysters, and ending with cratering oyster populations that were also being devastated by habitat alteration, disease and introduced species.

But these parables of ecological collapse wrought by colonization and capitalism often omit evidence of Indigenous fisheries that predated those of European settlers by thousands of years.

Rick said the new paper expands on a seminal 2004 paper that documented the collapses of 28 oyster fisheries located along the east and west coasts of North America and Australia’s east coast. But the 2004 paper’s timeline in each location begins with European colonists’ creation of commercial oyster fisheries.

The new study’s goal was to deepen the historical context of those modern declines by documenting the Indigenous oyster fisheries at the same locales that appeared in the 2004 paper. But stretching this ecological timeline deeper into the past was not the paper’s only aim, Rick said.

“Conservation today can’t just be seen as a biological question and can’t just be about undoing the environmental damage we’ve done in the modern era,” Rick said. “Instead, global conservation efforts should be coupled with undoing the legacies of colonialism which brought about the attempted erasure and displacement of Indigenous people all over the world.”

To document the Indigenous oyster fisheries in the same locations from the 2004 paper, Rick, Reeder-Myers and colleagues turned to the archaeological record, specifically to accumulations of oyster shells that are also known as middens. These middens come in many forms and are much more than trash piles as some archeologists once suggested. Some were small and perhaps only used seasonally, while others were monumental, towering up to 30 feet into the sky, serving as important ceremonial, sacred and symbolic spaces.

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