Fishing down the coast: Historical expansion and collapse of oyster fisheries along continental margins
Estuarine ecosystems have changed dramatically from centuries of fishing, habitat disturbance, sedimentation, and nutrient loading. Degradation of oyster reefs by destructive fishing practices in particular has had a profound effect on estuarine ecology, yet the timing and magnitude of oyster-reef degradation in estuaries is poorly quantified. Here, I evaluate the expansion and collapse of oyster fisheries in 28 estuaries along three continental margins through the analysis of historical proxies derived from fishery records to infer when oyster reefs were degraded. Exploitation for oysters did not occur randomly along continental margins but followed a predictable pattern. Oyster fisheries expanded and collapsed in a linear sequence along eastern North America (Crassostrea virginica), western North America (Ostreola conchaphila), and eastern Australia (Saccostrea glomerata). Fishery collapse began in the estuaries that were nearest to a developing urban center before exploitation began to spread down the coast. As each successive fishery collapsed, oysters from more distant estuaries were fished and transported to restock exploited estuaries near the original urban center. This moving wave of exploitation traveled along each coastline until the most distant estuary had been reached and overfished.