Using the Fossil Record to Establish a Baseline and Recommendations for Oyster Mitigation in the Mid-Atlantic U.S.

  • Kristopher M. KusnerikEmail author
  • Rowan Lockwood
  • Amanda N. Grant
Part of the Topics in Geobiology book series (TGBI, volume 47)


Eastern oyster populations throughout the Mid-Atlantic region of the USA have been in decline for centuries due to overharvesting, disease, increased sediment pollution, and habitat destruction. By studying Pleistocene fossil oyster assemblages, it is possible to reconstruct baseline conditions and develop recommendations for oyster mitigation. Fossil assemblages were studied from five Pleistocene sites located in Maryland, Virginia, and North Carolina. Reconstructions of paleosalinity and temperature were used to identify modern and colonial sites with similar environmental parameters for comparison. Shell height and life span in Chesapeake Bay oysters declined significantly from the Pleistocene to today, at the same time that ontogenetic growth rates have increased. This pattern is driven by age truncation, in which both harvesting and disease preferentially remove the larger, reproductively more active and primarily female members of the population. By contrast, Pleistocene oysters from North Carolina did not differ significantly, in shell height, life span, or growth rates, from modern oysters.

Although oyster management in the Mid-Atlantic States has focused historically on protecting and supplementing early life stages, this study recommends three potential management solutions to the age truncation revealed by comparison with Pleistocene oysters. Possible solutions include (1) implementation of a maximum size or slot limit on the fishery, (2) establishment of marine protected areas (MPA), or (3) significant lowering of exploitation rates.


Crassostrea virginica Pleistocene Growth rates Chesapeake Bay Fishery Aquaculture Aquatic resource management Oyster reef Restoration Virginia Maryland North Carolina 



We would like to thank Admiral Pete Roane and his family for access to the study site at Holland Point, Virginia. Additionally, we would like to thank Dr. Roger Mann (Virginia Institute of Marine Science) for information on the Holland Point site; Dr. Buck Ward (Virginia Museum of Natural History) for field assistance and access to museum specimens; students Chris Young, Sam Bonanni, and Eric Dale (The College of William and Mary); Mitch Tarnowski (Maryland Department of Natural Resources) for Maryland oyster data; Dr. Gregory Henkes (Johns Hopkins University) for clumped isotope analyses; Dr. Gregory Herbert (University of South Florida) for help with sclerochronology lab work; Dr. Henry Miller (Historic St. Mary’s City), Keith Doms (Newlin Grist Mill), and Drs. Torben Rick and Leslie Reeder-Myers (Smithsonian Institution) for Maryland archaeological data; Dr. John Wehmiller (University of Delaware) for amino acid racemization analyses; Rick Berquist (Virginia Division of Geology and Mineral Resources) for designation of stratigraphic units; and Dr. Doug Jones (Florida Museum of Natural History) for help with data interpretation. Comments from two reviewers, Drs. Patricia Kelley (University of North Carolina at Wilmington) and Nicole Bonuso (California State University at Fullerton) greatly improved the quality of the manuscript. Lastly, we would like to thank the Ellen Stofan Fund from the College of William and Mary for financial support of this research project.


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Copyright information

© Springer International Publishing AG, part of Springer Nature 2018

Authors and Affiliations

  • Kristopher M. Kusnerik
    • 1
    Email author
  • Rowan Lockwood
    • 2
  • Amanda N. Grant
    • 3
  1. 1.Division of Invertebrate PaleontologyFlorida Museum of Natural HistoryGainesvilleUSA
  2. 2.Department of GeologyThe College of William and MaryWilliamsburgUSA
  3. 3.School of Earth Sciences and Environmental SustainabilityNorthern Arizona UniversityFlagstaffUSA

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