A new book, Taming of the Oyster: A History of Evolving Shellfisheries and the National Shellfisheries Association, by Melbourne R. Carriker, professor emeritus of marine studies at the University of Delaware, provides a detailed history of both the shellfish industry and the National Shellfisheries Association.
Carriker, who is the most active senior member of the National Shellfisheries Association and a well-known scholar and writer, spent over seven years researching and collecting documents and records related to the development of the shellfish industry and the association. He even spent a week at the Library of Congress in Washington, DC, poring through back issues of the Fishing Gazette, a magazine that began publication in the late 1800s.
According to Carriker, the shellfish industry began in the 1800s with the hand gathering of the eastern oyster, Crassostrea virginica, from shallow estuaries along the East Coast of the United States. The commercial value of the oyster grew along with its popularity, and oyster harvesting soon catapulted into a multimillion fishery. By the late 1880s, between 9 and 10 million bushels of oysters were being harvested each season, with 45 firms engaged in oyster packing.
“But,” Carriker says, “there was trouble ahead.”
In 1902, an outbreak of typhoid fever and gastrointestinal disorders was blamed on the consumption of oysters. Market demand plummeted, and many oyster companies failed or merged. In 1907, the oyster growers and dealers formed an association to protect the industry by educating the public about the “wholesomeness of oysters.”
Yet another crisis was looming on the horizon. Marine biologists, ecologists, and other coastal scientists had begun to voice concerns about the status of the oyster industry. As early as 1891, a report commissioned by the governor of Maryland indicated that the demand for oysters had outgrown its natural supply.
“These early scientists also were profoundly concerned by the increasing pollution of local estuaries,” says Carriker. “Oysters that are harvested from polluted waters can be potentially harmful to the health of consumers. In addition, a polluted environment can be deleterious to the reproduction and early life stages of the oyster.”
These financial and environmental concerns as well as legislative obstacles to further the development of the shellfish industry prompted shellfish commissioners from several coastal states to form the National Association of Shellfish Commissioners in 1909. In 1915, this association became known as the National Association of Fisheries Commissioners, and, in 1930, was formally recognized as the National Shellfisheries Association. Now one of the oldest scientific societies in the United States, the association has become an internationally recognized organization of scientists, management officials, and members of industry.
Taming the Oyster chronicles nearly a century of notable successes and depressing failures of the shellfish industry. Carriker describes the effects of two world wars and the great depression of the thirties, the pressures of growing pollution in coastal waters, the significance of research advancements, and the emergence of the field of aquaculture on both shellfish workers and the various associations related to the shellfish industry.
“I enjoyed writing about those plucky, devoted individuals who gave so much of their professional lives to advance the domestication of the oyster and make oyster farming more successful,” says Carriker, who used the word “taming” in his title to encapsulate the many years of hard work this process entailed.
“Mel Carriker has done a remarkable job of capturing not only the facts, but also the sense and sensitivities of that journey,” says Sandra Shumway, professor of marine sciences at the University of Connecticut and president of the National Shellfisheries Association. “We owe him a huge debt of gratitude.”
The 264-page book includes approximately 100 black-and-white photographs and will interest marine biologists, shellfish biologists, shellfish industry people, and historians who want to understand the development and role of professional and trade associations in the United States.
It is available from the National Shellfisheries Association for $25, plus $4 shipping and handling. For more information, contact Sandra Shumway of the Department of Marine Sciences at the University of Connecticut at firstname.lastname@example.org.
Carriker joined the faculty of the College of Marine Studies at the University of Delaware in 1973 and retired in 1985. During his 22 years at the college, he completed numerous research projects in marine malacology, a branch of zoology focusing on snails, oysters, clams, and other mollusks. He has written more than 150 scientific publications, taught and advised dozens of graduate students, and received professional honors ranging from an honorary Doctor of Science degree from Beloit College in Wisconsin to the naming of a copepod and an amoeba after him.
He is the author of Vista Nieve, which was published in 2000, that describes the history of his family and their coffee plantation, nestled in the Sierra Nevada de Santa Marta mountains of Colombia. Carriker currently is working on another book, Bird Call of the Rio Beni, describing his experiences as an assistant to his ornithologist father as they collected birds in the wilds of Bolivia, South America, from 1934 to 1935, for the Academy of Natural Sciences in Philadelphia.