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Truly Long-Term Sustainability: An Archaeological Analysis of Oyster Shells
1  University of Florida

Published: 31 October 2013 by MDPI in The 3rd World Sustainability Forum session Social Values for a Sustainable Economy
Abstract: The simultaneous effects of today’s population growth and climate change are endangering the world’s vulnerable resources. Oyster reefs, which provide vital ecological services, have an estimated 85% loss from historical levels worldwide. This loss threatens the sustainability of current high-intensity industrial oyster harvesting practices. Fortunately, a deeper time perspective on oyster harvesting provides insight to policy options for sustaining the industry into the distant future. During the 19th century, Cedar Key, Florida was among the largest oyster exporters in the U.S. Two-thousand years earlier, the area was teeming with aboriginal communities that harvested oysters and collected the inedible remains in huge mounds and middens. One such site, Shell Mound, just north of Cedar Key, is a 7-m-tall, 200-m-wide shell ring that was erected in only a couple of centuries. This construction followed a period of another 2,000 years during which oysters were routinely collected and consumed in large quantities. With such large-scale harvesting over four millennia, native people employed a strategy of resiliency to sustain their maritime economies. With case material from parallel native experiences in the Chesapeake region, I illustrate how oyster harvesting was diversified to include wider catchments and less selectivity through time. While these data suggest that native shellfishers experienced downturns in local production, niche expansion and diversification enabled recovery of local oyster beds and supported, in the long-term, sustained settlement without disruption in occupation or economy. The methods employed in the Chesapeake study can be used to examine long-term oyster harvesting in the Cedar Key region, an area that is currently suffering decreasing yields due to climate change, diminished water quality, and underregulated harvesting. Although contemporary ecological studies provide short-term assessments of changes in oyster populations, an understanding of multicentury exploitation, such as what can be offered by archaeological data, is crucial for successfully creating a long-term future in sustainable oyster exploitation.
Keywords: human impacts, oysters, maritime economies, climate change, anthropogenic landscapes