Native Societies Harvested Billions of Oysters Sustainably

An eroding late Holocene Native American oyster midden at low tide in Fishing Bay, Maryland. COURTESY OF TORBEN RICK

An eroding late Holocene Native American oyster midden at low tide in Fishing Bay, Maryland. COURTESY OF TORBEN RICK

Conservationists should look to Indigenous history to fix the future.

MOUND KEY, AN UNINHABITED ISLAND off the coast of southwest Florida, rises more than 30 feet above the shallow waters of Estero Bay. Save for the occasional tourists who paddle out here, relatively few people visit its thickly forested shores. For nearly 2,000 years, however, this place held a special significance for the Calusa, an Indigenous Nation that once fished and thrived throughout the Everglades. The island, along with a number of similar mounds, is the result of a generations-long feat of engineering on the part of the Calusa. Their building material of choice: 18.6 billion oyster shells.

“Oftentimes these are mounds that are deeply embedded in people’s ceremonial and ritual lives,” says Torben Rick, an anthropologist and curator of North American Archaeology at the Smithsonian National Museum of Natural History. “Oysters were nested in people’s lives not just as a food source, but also as an engineering material and something that was deeply held with meaning.”

What struck Rick about Mound Key was that not only were the Calusa able to harvest a staggering number of oysters, but they were able to do so without wiping out the local bivalve population. According to a newly released study by Rick and former Smithsonian postdoctoral fellow Leslie Reeder-Myers, the Calusa were just one of a number of Native Nations in North America and Australia that appear to have sustainably managed long-lasting, highly efficient oyster fisheries for hundreds and even thousands of years. First published in Nature Communications, the archaeological findings have profound implications.

“We’re talking about sites that had more than a billion oysters in them, or even small sites that had a million oysters in them,” Rick says. And while there may be select indications of overharvesting, they are rare.

“Here in Maine, people were taking oysters as far back as 5,000 or 6,000 years ago,” says Dr. Bonnie Newsom, an anthropology professor at the University of Maine and a co-author of the study who is a member of the Penobscot Nation. “How people related to the species back then can really inform how we’re engaging with oysters today.”

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