The Oyster Question
Scientists, Watermen, and the Maryland Chesapeake Bay since 1880

Christine Keiner

Oyster beds as a political and environmental battleground


"An exciting contribution to both the history of science and environmental history. In this case study of the Maryland oyster fishery, Keiner does an excellent job of combining these two historical perspectives to shed new light on the depths of a problem that has challenged all of the American oyster states since the early nineteenth century. Through her analysis, Keiner effectively reframes how environmental historians have analyzed histories of common resources and provides a working model for integrating historical and ecological information to bridge the histories of science and environmental history."
Journal of the History of Biology

"In The Oyster Question, Christine Keiner adds depth and nuance to this more complex view of conservation. Tracing the history of scientific research and the oyster fishery in Chesapeake Bay, she demonstrates how science and conservation must be understood as local phenomena that are shaped by specific environmental and social contexts."

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In The Oyster Question, Christine Keiner applies perspectives of environmental, agricultural, political, and social history to examine the decline of Maryland’s iconic Chesapeake Bay oyster industry.

Oystermen have held on to traditional ways of life, and some continue to use preindustrial methods, tonging oysters by hand from small boats. Others use more intensive tools, and thus it is commonly believed that a lack of regulation enabled oystermen to exploit the bay to the point of ruin.

But Keiner offers an opposing view in which state officials, scientists, and oystermen created a regulated commons that sustained tidewater communities for decades. Not until the 1980s did a confluence of natural and unnatural disasters weaken the bay’s resilience enough to endanger the oyster resource. Keiner examines conflicts that pitted scientists in favor of privatization against watermen who used their power in the statehouse to stave off the forces of rural change. Her study breaks new ground regarding the evolution of environmental politics at the state rather than the federal level.

The Oyster Question concludes with the impassioned ongoing debate over introducing nonnative oysters to the Chesapeake Bay and how that proposal might affect the struggling watermen and their identity as the last hunter-gatherers of the industrialized world.

Environmental History and the American South

Page count: 352 pp.
14 b&w photos, 2 maps
Trim size: 6 x 9


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List price: $29.95

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Christine Keiner teaches environmental studies and the history of science at Rochester Institute of Technology.