Oysters were harvested sustainably for thousands of years by Indigenous peoples, study finds

Indigenous communities had harvested oysters for thousands of years before they were colonized by Europeans, who then oversaw the rapid collapse of these sustainable fisheries, according to research published this May in Nature Communications.

The study authors looked at ancient oyster fisheries across the Atlantic and Pacific coasts of North America and eastern Australia and found evidence of intensive oyster harvesting dating back more than six thousand years in some areas. These oyster fisheries appeared after sea levels stabilized following the end of the last ice age, when the estuaries that many oyster species depend on became established.

“An interesting finding from this study is that many locations on the coast have had stable oyster populations for thousands of years. As we work toward restoring this species, these data can help guide where restoration should occur,” says Marco Hatch, an associate professor of environmental science at Western Washington University and an author of the study.

“Rather than relying on models and assumptions of where oysters might thrive, we can use thousands of years of data to direct restoration efforts,” adds Hatch, who is also a member of the Samish Indian Nation, the territory of which covers the central and southern San Juan Islands in Washington State.