Reviews of The Taming of the Oyster

Taming of the Oyster: A History of Evolving Shellfisheries and the National Shellfisheries Association

Melbourne Romaine Carriker. 2003. The Sheridan Press, 450 Fame Avenue, Hanover, PA 17331 USA. 264 p.

"Taming of the Oyster" is available for US $25 plus shipping and handling through NSA President Sandy Shumway, Department of Marine Sciences, University of Connecticut, 1080 Shennecossett Road, Groton, CT 06340 USA.

E-mail: sandra.shumway@uconn.edu

Review by Steve LeGore (published in the Spring 2004 Caribbean Marine Science Newsletter by the Association of Marine Laboratories of the Caribbean)

A history of the National Shellfisheries Association (NSA) has got to be boring, right? Well, maybe, unless it is compiled and written by Mel Carriker. I first encountered Mel at the 1973 NSA meeting in New Orleans. He presented results of his research on oyster drill mechanisms of attack for overpowering oysters by rasping a hole through the oyster’s shell for three days. Mel may be the only person I know who could have filled this attack with drama, complete with frontal assaults, flanking maneuvers, desperate defenses, the joy of winning and the agony of defeat. He enthralled the entire audience for 20 minutes – one of the most remarkable feats I have ever seen. I believe he has done it again with this book.

The NSA was established in 1930, but Mel doesn’t begin here. No, he chooses to begin in 1638 when oysters comprised a plentiful dietary staple among Connecticut settlers and local Indians. If one must begin, then one probably should begin at the beginning, right? But the organizational embryo of the NSA was the Oyster Growers and Dealers Association established in 1907, followed almost immediately by formation of the National Association of Shellfish Commissioners (NASC) in 1908 in response to numerous oyster industry challenges and issues. Over the next several years, an increasing influence of scientists concerned with ecological, economic, and shellfish sanitation issues, largely led by students of Dr. Louis Agassiz, led to the reorganization of these associations into the NSA. From these beginnings, the NSA evolved into a dynamic and influential association of shellfish scientists and shellfish industry specialists that can in many ways provide a model for the future of the AMLC. The NSA was established because issues needed to be explored and questions begged to be answered, circumstances to which Caribbean ecology is no stranger.

Mel relates the subsequent history of the NSA against a backdrop of issues of the day, including World Wars, economic crises, oyster disease issues, and the development of aquaculture. The discourse therefore is alive with drama, and places decisions and research initiatives into historical perspective. It is a good read, and is replete with "who did what," but I must admit that among my own favorite parts of the book are the pictures! I am certain that this photo collection results from monumental effort, which I, for one, genuinely appreciate. As I search through the pages I see and remember a lot of old friends, but even more intriguing is that I find pictures of them from years before I knew them, and I find others of people I know only from the literature or in some cases by legend. Robert Coker, Paul Galtsoff, Victor Loosanoff, Thurlow C. Nelson, Sewell Hopkins, Harold Haskin, Ken Chew, and yes, even Mel Carriker, are presented in their elements. Dozens of others are provided, so I will not even try to be comprehensive for fear of inadvertently omitting some very relevant personalities. There is even one taken during a sponge study off Nassau of a Dr. Smith sucking on a pipette with his mouth from the days when this was accepted practice!

"Taming of the Oyster" is a highly readable and valuable record documenting the evolution of American shellfisheries science and the accomplishments of worthy people with common interests and objectives. All the facts are there, but this is not the dry droning book it could have become in other hands. Broadly used anecdotal incidents provide illustrative entertainment and perspective to events affecting the NSA and its members. This book also provides insights into the lives and careers of dedicated scientists and professionals very similar to many of our friends in the AMLC, and I sincerely commend Dr. Melbourne Carriker for undertaking the clearly huge effort needed to successfully create this engaging history of a small group of professionals dedicated to making good science.

Review by University of Delaware Marine Publication Education Office:

New Book by UD Professor Captures the History of the National Shellfisheries Association

A new book, Taming of the Oyster: A History of Evolving Shellfisheries and the National Shellfisheries Association, by Melbourne R. Carriker, professor emeritus of marine studies at the University of Delaware, provides a detailed history of both the shellfish industry and the National Shellfisheries Association.

Carriker, who is the most active senior member of the National Shellfisheries Association and a well-known scholar and writer, spent over seven years researching and collecting documents and records related to the development of the shellfish industry and the association. He even spent a week at the Library of Congress in Washington, DC, poring through back issues of the Fishing Gazette, a magazine that began publication in the late 1800s.

According to Carriker, the shellfish industry began in the 1800s with the hand gathering of the eastern oyster, Crassostrea virginica, from shallow estuaries along the East Coast of the United States. The commercial value of the oyster grew along with its popularity, and oyster harvesting soon catapulted into a multimillion fishery. By the late 1880s, between 9 and 10 million bushels of oysters were being harvested each season, with 45 firms engaged in oyster packing.

“But,” Carriker says, “there was trouble ahead.”

In 1902, an outbreak of typhoid fever and gastrointestinal disorders was blamed on the consumption of oysters. Market demand plummeted, and many oyster companies failed or merged. In 1907, the oyster growers and dealers formed an association to protect the industry by educating the public about the “wholesomeness of oysters.”

Yet another crisis was looming on the horizon. Marine biologists, ecologists, and other coastal scientists had begun to voice concerns about the status of the oyster industry. As early as 1891, a report commissioned by the governor of Maryland indicated that the demand for oysters had outgrown its natural supply.

“These early scientists also were profoundly concerned by the increasing pollution of local estuaries,” says Carriker. “Oysters that are harvested from polluted waters can be potentially harmful to the health of consumers. In addition, a polluted environment can be deleterious to the reproduction and early life stages of the oyster.”

These financial and environmental concerns as well as legislative obstacles to further the development of the shellfish industry prompted shellfish commissioners from several coastal states to form the National Association of Shellfish Commissioners in 1909. In 1915, this association became known as the National Association of Fisheries Commissioners, and, in 1930, was formally recognized as the National Shellfisheries Association. Now one of the oldest scientific societies in the United States, the association has become an internationally recognized organization of scientists, management officials, and members of industry.

Taming the Oyster chronicles nearly a century of notable successes and depressing failures of the shellfish industry. Carriker describes the effects of two world wars and the great depression of the thirties, the pressures of growing pollution in coastal waters, the significance of research advancements, and the emergence of the field of aquaculture on both shellfish workers and the various associations related to the shellfish industry.

“I enjoyed writing about those plucky, devoted individuals who gave so much of their professional lives to advance the domestication of the oyster and make oyster farming more successful,” says Carriker, who used the word “taming” in his title to encapsulate the many years of hard work this process entailed.

“Mel Carriker has done a remarkable job of capturing not only the facts, but also the sense and sensitivities of that journey,” says Sandra Shumway, professor of marine sciences at the University of Connecticut and president of the National Shellfisheries Association. “We owe him a huge debt of gratitude.”

The 264-page book includes approximately 100 black-and-white photographs and will interest marine biologists, shellfish biologists, shellfish industry people, and historians who want to understand the development and role of professional and trade associations in the United States.

It is available from the National Shellfisheries Association for $25, plus $4 shipping and handling. For more information, contact Sandra Shumway of the Department of Marine Sciences at the University of Connecticut at sandra.shumway@uconn.edu.

Carriker joined the faculty of the College of Marine Studies at the University of Delaware in 1973 and retired in 1985. During his 22 years at the college, he completed numerous research projects in marine malacology, a branch of zoology focusing on snails, oysters, clams, and other molluscs. He has written more than 150 scientific publications, taught and advised dozens of graduate students, and received professional honors ranging from an honorary Doctor of Science degree from Beloit College in Wisconsin to the naming of a copepod and an amoeba after him.

He is the author of Vista Nieve, which was published in 2000, that describes the history of his family and their coffee plantation, nestled in the Sierra Nevada de Santa Marta mountains of Colombia. Carriker currently is working on another book, Bird Call of the Rio Beni, describing his experiences as an assistant to his ornithologist father as they collected birds in the wilds of Bolivia, South America, from 1934 to 1935, for the Academy of Natural Sciences in Philadelphia.

Review by Christopher Dungan, Maryland Department of Natural Resources
Cooperative Oxford Laboratory, Oxford, Maryland for Maryland Aquafarmer

Renowned malacologist and educator Melborne Carriker generously embraced the thorough researching and writing of this highly readable history of the first century of the National Shellfisheries Association (NSA), its predecessor, and affiliated shellfish industry organizations dating to the beginning of the 20th century. As the literate proprietor of the best and longest NSA corporate memory, possessor of first-hand knowledge of most NSA principals since the early 1940s, and first editor of the society's journal, Dr. Carriker was well recruited for the job. His subsequent and comprehensive gleaning among the entire range of relevant East Coast library archives fully expanded the author's already deep personal knowledge of his subject.

This affordable, softbound book traces the history of the U.S. oyster industry, and its pioneers, managers, and especially its scientists. Thoughtful and informed references to social, political, and biological conditions consistently frame oyster research initiatives in proper and informative historical perspective. That context includes effects on oyster production and markets by several major and minor wars, the Great Depression, periodic typhoid and other human disease epidemics, and recently, prominent effects of widespread oyster diseases and cumulative oyster habitat degradation. The volume is amply illustrated by more than one hundred high-quality, archival photographs of individuals and facilities associated with the development of the U.S. oyster industry and the NSA. Vivid descriptions of the pioneering research and personalities of NSA giants Victor Loosanof, Paul Galtsoff, and Thurlow C. Nelson are peppered with illuminating personal anecdotes. The same intimate knowledge enlivens descriptions of the many other dedicated, "plucky" individuals (Melborne Carriker prominently included), whose persistent and thoughtful efforts elucidated the fascinating mechanisms of oyster biology and reproduction that, in turn, gave rise to hatchery techniques that enabled and empowered the emerging U.S. and international mollusc aquaculture industry.

This work specifically highlights the early contributions of women scientists, including a unique closing chapter by NSA honored life member Dr. Susan Ford on the significant and growing contributions of women scientists to mollusc research and NSA leadership functions. Finally, for those interested in detailed references by year for NSA officers, committee chairs, honored life members, Thurlow C. Nelson award recipients, Journal of Shellfish Research page charges, etc., this information is conveniently tabulated in a series of appendices. Careful, copy-editing has rendered this book largely free of typographical errors. However, first printing editions unfortunately lack a bound copyright page, which is separately provided for pasting to the inside of the front cover.

This book is an essential, affordable, and entertainingly readable reference on the American oyster industry through the focus of the NSA. It deserves prominent space on the shelves of those interested in oyster biology and fisheries, and of those concerned with the social and political aspects of the oyster's ascendancies and declines.