Research Highlights / Full Story

Research by RIT professor Christine Keiner is shedding new light on how a combination of political, economic, and social factors maintained Maryland's iconic oyster industry for most of the 20th century despite intense pressure to privatize the rich oyster reefs of the Chesapeake Bay, the nation's largest estuary.

Keiner, associate professor of science, technology and society in the College of Liberal Arts, integrated perspectives from environmental, agricultural, political, and social history to chronicle the decisions that enabled the Maryland Chesapeake oyster industry to survive as a regulated commons in an increasingly industrialized and privatized world economic system.

Her book on the subject, The Oyster Question: Scientists, Watermen, and the Maryland Chesapeake Bay since 1880, was published by the University of Georgia Press in 2010 and has since been released in paperback. The book won the 2010 book prize from the Forum for the History of Science in America, which focuses on research, scholarship, and education surrounding the history of scientific inquiry and practice in the United States.

"Rather than epitomizing the 'tragedy of the commons' thesis, the Maryland oyster fishery has served as a positive, if imperfect, model for a world undergoing increased corporate control of natural resources," Keiner says. "Through this book I hope to provide answers as to how and why this industry managed to survive for so long, to help provide a useful historical foundation for current environmental policymaking efforts in both the Chesapeake region and beyond."

While many experts have argued that a lack of regulation enabled oystermen to exploit the bay to the point of ruin, Keiner offers an opposing view in which state officials, scientists, and oystermen created a regulated commons that sustained tidewater communities for decades.

Keiner's research is one of the first comprehensive environmental histories of the Maryland oyster industry and also provides new insights regarding the evolution of U.S. environmental politics at the state rather than the federal level.