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Oyster fisheries around the world have suffered collapses over the past 200 years that have been attributed to overexploitation, climatic changes, disease and the introduction of alien species. This is particularly noticeable in countries where colonizers arrived and commercialized the harvest of this shellfish on a large scale. In the process, Indigenous peoples who had used the resource for hundreds, or even thousands of years previously, were displaced and marginalized. Today, as much as 85 percent of the 19th century oyster reefs have been lost and oyster fisheries have declined globally.

Research into oyster fisheries has often focused on the years subsequent to the arrival of colonizers, and the data has been used to inform management practices, while the earlier use of the resource by Indigenous peoples has largely been overlooked or ignored. And yet these people depended upon oysters as part of their diet and economy, in addition to using them in social, ritual and cultural traditions. They were deeply connected to the coastal ecosystem and had indigenous knowledge derived from the historical use of the resource.

In a new, global study of Indigenous oyster fisheries, published today in the journal Nature Communications, scientists have excavated the remains of shell middens in areas of eastern Australia, the Pacific Coast of North America, and the Atlantic and Gulf of Mexico coast of North America, in order to expand on knowledge about oyster harvesting prior to the arrival of colonial populations. The study was co-led by anthropologist Torben Rick of the Smithsonian’s National Museum of Natural History, and Temple University anthropologist and former Smithsonian postdoctoral fellow Leslie Reeder-Myers.

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