Nothing seems more frustrating than repeatedly making the same mistake. How many times in a row can I hit my head on the same low hanging branch, forget the difference between the 1/2/3 above 96th Street or break the wine cork in half before complete insanity sets in?
Unfortunately we as humans have a fairly poor track record of learning from our mistakes, especially when it comes to renewable resource extraction or consumption. While we don’t universally get it wrong, we seem slow to learn sometimes.
When Henry Hudson arrived in what’s now his eponymous River in 1609 on an 85-foot wooden carrack with a scraggly crew on deck, the locals (Lenape at the time) dubbed the newcomers a name translated as ‘Salty People’ for their oceanic method of arrival. The Lenape and their predecessors ate oysters as early as 6,950 B.C. in the Hudson Watershed and according to historical records quickly turned the newcomers onto the bodacious New York beds.
By some estimates, those original New York wild oyster beds covered 350 square miles of the Harbor watershed including the Hudson and East Rivers, Jamaica Bay, Staten Island, the Bronx and beyond. While Native peoples certainly feasted on ‘sters, low population densities ensured the macro sustainability of any harvesting.
Fast forward almost exactly 200 years from Henry Hudson’s 1609 landing and oystermen working some of New York’s most productive beds offshore of Staten Island started coming up empty.
Let’s do some math supporting stylized facts to get from Point A (abundance) to Point B (exhaustion). I promise I’ll do it all for you and give you all the answers. I'll make the sausage, you just grill. Making some assumptions, I’ll ballpark the amount of native oysters at around 80 billion.
Seems like a bunch, right?
New York’s population increased 4.0% annually during the 100 years from 1790 to 1890 from about 50,000 to roughly 2.5 million. Those are the first 100 years for which we have official Decennial Census Data.
Fitting an exponential function to this population data, we can come up with a way to estimate New York’s population growth, backward and forward. Not perfect, but work with me here.
Next, remember that back then people ate far more oysters – let’s assume 400 annually per capita, which is within anecdotal historical estimates and about an oyster per day. If we hold that consumption number constant, we can multiply it by our population function to get an estimate of annual consumption for any year we choose.
In the 211 years from 1609 to 1820, for example, we as New Yorkers might have eaten around 2.5 billion oysters, or over 3% of our 350 square miles. By 1890, we might have extracted 30 billion, or almost 40% of our 350 square miles if everything we were eating were local. Keep in mind that lots of the 350 square miles was probably too far away from population centers in Southern Manhattan to even be commercially viable in the first place in an era of rowing and sailing.
This back-of-the-envelope account doesn’t include potential imports or the huge volume of oyster exports, and it’s hard to know how we affected natural reproduction or destroyed habitat, but the data are suggestive. Simultaneously with intense extraction, we filled in estuaries and other productive oyster habitat to make more land, thereby reducing natural oyster habitat and eliminating established, reproducing populations for the sake of development. Gotta have that true one bedroom.
The crazy thing is that the exploitation up to 1820 or so that wiped out the Staten Island beds wasn’t the byproduct of heavy equipment belching fossil fuels and digging up miles of oysters at a time with mechanization, but rather tens of thousands of individuals and small-scale commercial oystermen catching oysters in relatively small numbers with manual equipment for local markets. Death by a thousand cuts, indeed!
What came next? The writing was on the wall that increased harvest pressure and development spelled bad f*n news for the natural beds. Oystermen looked abroad to countries with industrial oyster farming efforts like France to learn methods with which they would try to rescue the ailing New York beds.
Waiting in the wings: a generation of hard-hitting capitalists bracing themselves for a messy battle to rule an industry they were about to invent: oyster farming, not catching, in New York Harbor. Floating mahogany offices, astounding wealth and hostile oyster bed takeovers are on deck for our next historical post. This is business.