Aired: November 22, 2008

Aww Shucks… Oysters in Virginia

In Virginia, oysters have influenced our history, our industry, our culture and, of course, our eating habits.  When Captain John Smith sailed into the Chesapeake Bay, he said oysters were so plentiful “they lay thick as stones.” By the 1980s, overharvesting, disease and pollution had reduced the number of oysters to just one percent of those historic levels.  But there is now reason for optimism as oysters are making a comeback.  Chefs, oystermen, conservationists, oyster-lovers, and poets Nikki Giovanni (Virginia Tech) and Tim Seibles (Old Dominion University) all weigh-in about the legend and allure of Crassotrea virginica.


Want to dig deeper? Explore Encyclopedia Virginia:

Fishing and Shellfishing by Early Virginia Indians



4 Comments on “Aww Shucks… Oysters in Virginia”

  1. Alice Supple

    I listened to your report on the decline of oysters in Virginia waters. Unfortunately you chose a word which, although in popular usage, is often used incorrectly: decimate. I don’t remember the exact quote, but you spoke of the oyster population being decimated.

    Decimate means to reduce by 10%. I don’t believe that is what you meant. I hope that once more people are acquainted with the proper meaning of the word, it will cease to be used for: destroyed, demolished, nearly wiped out, ravaged, ruined, severely damaged, exhausted, depleted, or nearly used up.

  2. Jesse Dukes

    Ms. Supple,

    Thank you so much for listening to our show on oysters and leaving a comment. You are correct that we’ve lost much more than 10% of the oyster population of Chesapeake Bay. In fact, the number is probably more than 90%. Also, we recently featured an interview about Romans in Iraq in which we learned of the Roman origins of the word “decimate”; in this case referring to a punishment for military units that failed in battle. One out of every ten soldiers was killed. That show is available here:

    I’m personally fascinated by questions of usage, and my favorite resource is the American Heritage Dictionary, which features quotes from it’s usage panel in definitions. I looked at the entry for “decimate” and sure enough, it is the subject of an ongoing usage debate. Here’s what they say:

    *dec·i·mate* (de(s’?-ma-t’) Pronunciation Key tr.v. *dec·i·mat·ed*, *dec·i·mat·ing*, *dec·i·mates*

    1. To destroy or kill a large part of (a group).
    2. /Usage Problem/
    1. To inflict great destruction or damage on: /The fawns
    decimated my rose bushes./
    2. To reduce markedly in amount: /a profligate heir who
    decimated his trust fund./
    3. To select by lot and kill one in every ten of.

    [Latin decima-re, decima-t-, /to punish every tenth person/, from decimus, /tenth/, from decem, /ten/; see dek in Indo-European roots.]
    *dec’i·ma’tion*/ n./

    /*Usage Note*/: /Decimate/ originally referred to the killing of
    every tenth person, a punishment used in the Roman army for mutinous legions. Today this meaning is commonly extended to include the killing of any large proportion of a group. Sixty-six percent of the Usage Panel accepts this extension in the sentence /The Jewish population of Germany was decimated by the war,/ even though it is common knowledge that the number of Jews killed was much greater
    than a tenth of the original population. However, when the meaning is further extended to include large-scale destruction other than killing, as in /The supply of fresh produce was decimated by the nuclear accident at Chernobyl,/ only 26 percent of the Panel accepts the usage.

    So the majority of the American Heritage usage panelists favor our use of “decimate”. However, I think we could have used a more specific and less dramatic sounding word to more clearly convey what we mean. The numbers themselves are quite dramatic.

  3. Scott Riley

    I think this is a good piece on the oyster and the culture that surrounds it. I wish there would have been a mention of some of the communities that are entirely dependent on seafood harvests, such as Tangier and Smith Island. Also lacking was comments from the scientific community, especially the scientists working on selective breeding of the native oysters.

  4. Jesse Dukes

    Thanks for the comment Scott. We would love to spend some time on Tangier or Smith Island at some point. Do you know people to talk to there.

    The efforts of scientists, fisheries managers, private citizens to restore oysters can’t really be separated from the entire tragedy of the Chesapeake Bay–and the monumental efforts to restore the ecosystem on the part of VIMS, the Nature Conservancy and others. It is a HUGE story–easily big enough for it’s own hour long program. I’m not sure we’re equipped to do that at With Good Reason, but we’ll keep telling parts of the story, piece by piece.

    Do you have a personal connection to oysters or the fisheries?

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