Oyster Wars | Pirates & The History of Oyster Harvesting on the OBX

The Mighty Oyster Goes to War

The oyster is a remarkable creature. Capable of filtering and cleaning up to 50 gallons of water a day, it is considered an integral part of a healthy estuarine ecosystem. It’s quite capable of growing on its own, although most of today’s oysters are harvested from farms. And, of course, most importantly, it is a wonderful food.

Oyster from Outer BanksIt may be hard to imagine, but this wonderful food –  that is incapable of moving –  has been the cause of violence and war in the past. 

It was probably just a matter of time before the hostility that plagued the oyster harvests of Maryland and Virginia came to North Carolina. Sharing the Chesapeake Bay, MD & VA were, at one time, the world’s largest suppliers of oysters. The states had been engaged in an often violent dispute over resource rights and what methods could be used to harvest oysters.

They also shared in the over-harvesting of the resource, and by the end of the 1880s there wasn’t much bounty left to go around. 

The sounds of North Carolina, however, were teeming with oysters, and the Outer Banks oystermen were still harvesting their catch with tongs—the equivalent of hand harvesting—at a time when dredge harvesting was the technological wonder.

By the end of the 1880s, armed oyster pirates sailed across the Chesapeake, taking oysters and thwarting efforts to regulate the resource and allow it to regrow. In Maryland and Virginia, there was confrontation and sometimes violent clashes between state officials and the pirates.

In 1888, the first of the pirate vessels were reported in North Carolina waters in the oyster reefs of Hyde County. Records kept at that time show the interlopers took 7000 bushels from the Pamlico Sound, shipping their oysters north to Maryland for processing.

Two years later, there were even more of them, this time invading the oyster reefs of Hyde, Carteret, and Pamlico counties. Efforts by county officials to derail what they viewed as an illegal harvest were ineffective.

In 1891, a full-fledged invasion of dredge boats from Virginia and Maryland seized the waters of Pamlico and Roanoke Sounds. According to reports of the time—and not necessarily corroborated—armed vessels took possession of all the oyster beds of Dare and Hyde County.

North Carolina Governor Daniel G. Fowle acted quickly, pushing through legislation that made it illegal to dredge for oysters in the state and restricting shipping of oysters out of state to North Carolina residents only.

The governor also hired a vessel and put armed state militia—the equivalent of what is now the National Guard—on the boat to enforce the law.

The policy of strict, almost violent, enforcement of the new laws had the desired effect, and the invaders retreated.

The governor’s action, though supported by the legislature, was not universally popular. Although Dare and Hyde County oystermen and the counties to the south largely applauded the action, the towns and cities of the Inner Banks had a very different view.

In a five year span, the oyster harvest had grown to almost one million bushels, and the out of state companies were hiring thousands of residents to process the catch. Elizabeth City, New Bern, and almost every mainland town that bordered the northern sounds became boom towns.

The laws were passed, though, and enforced, followed buy a much more comprehensive set of ordinances two years later. The new laws had many elements of modern fishery management, including restrictions on when oysters could be harvested, areas that could be harvested and size limits on oyster “gardens” what we would now call an oyster farm.

Although well designed, the laws largely failed to control excessive oyster harvesting—mostly because of ineffective and inconsistent enforcement.