The Oyster Wars--then and now

Leonardtown, MD - Fishermen flocked to the Chesapeake to get their share of its oysters in the late 1800s. New Englanders and Virginians, in addition to Marylanders, also got in on the business. Soon, there was an over-abundance of competition on the bay, and Maryland wanted to stop it. The Oyster Wars had begun.

The Oyster Wars were a series of sometimes violent disputes between oyster pirates and authorities and legal watermen from Maryland and Virginia in the waters of the Chesapeake Bay and the Potomac River from 1865 until about 1959. The last death reported in the Oyster Wars occurred April 8, 1959. That year, the Potomac River Fisheries Commissioner ordered the fisheries police disarmed after an officer killed a Virginia waterman who was illegally dredging. The move was credited with bringing an end to the violent conflicts. President John F. Kennedy signed the Potomac River Fisheries bill into law Dec. 5, 1962, thereby ending the Oyster Wars.

The Commissioners of St. Mary's County (BOCC) are seeking public input into what may be phrased as Oyster Wars Two. The new point of contention has been brought to the BOCC's attention by a few residents who do not wish to view, literally, the passive economic activity of aquaculture off the coast of St. Mary's County. In one sense this is a Gordian knot which needs to be unraveled---not an easy task, given the county has adopted an economic development master plan focused on diversifying our local economy and the plan highlights encouraging the growth of aquaculture. Similarly, Governor Hogan has been very supportive of replenishing the bay with oysters and supporting the growth of aquaculture, The conundrum is that to accomplish what the anti-oyster contingent is seeking would require a change in the state law.

Those affected the most are homeowners on the waterfront fearful that their water views will be spoiled  by aquaculture activities. During commissioners' time at the Tuesday, Aug. 21 BOCC business meeting, both Commissioner Mike Hewitt [R - District 2] and BOCC President Randy Guy [R] addressed the issue head on. A  public hearing will be held Aug. 28 at 6 p.m. in the BOCC meeting room. Both strongly encouraged residents ask questions and to let their feelings and ideas be known.  

Guy framed the public hearing as very important, recognizing that there are many stakeholders and, if the debate leads to the Southern Maryland Delegation attempting to change state law, it is critical that as much public input is provided as possible. 

Contact Martin Fairclough at

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