It was a conflict mostly of greed, with a smattering of geographic prejudice, antiauthoritarianism and class pride. Marylander fought Virginian, tongers fought the crews of mechanical dredge boats and watermen took aim at the interfering "Oyster Navy." One hundred years ago, the Chesapeake Bay's Oyster Wars reached their peak when more than a dozen people died in fighting around Hog Island Flats, a rich source of oysters in the southern Potomac. Gunfire would be heard even into the 1950s, but that winter of 1889 was the deadliest in the battle for the bay's most valuable resource. "It was a melee; it involved everyone. Sometimes it was watermen against the police, sometimes it was waterman versus waterman," said John R. Wennersten, a history professor at the University of Maryland's Eastern Shore campus and author of a book on the topic. A century later, the violence is hard to comprehend. Disease, pollution, development and over-harvesting have driven down the oyster catch, and the once-swashbuckling watermen are now a breed in decline. Last week, the oyster season opened again with the news that there is little left to fight about. State officials predicted a harvest of around 400,000 bushels for the third consecutive year, the lowest catch since the oyster industry came of age after the Civil War. The value of last year's harvest, roughly $7.3 million, is less than half of what it was 15 years ago. Around Tangier Sound, once a pillar of the bay's maritime economy, the outlook is for a "totally unproductive" year because of the effects of two parasitic diseases, MSX and Dermo, according to the state Department of Natural Resources. "Right now it is more a war for survival" for the state's remaining watermen and the species itself, said Stuart Lehman, a staff scientist for the Chesapeake Bay Foundation. But given the harvests of a century ago, it is not hard to see why men would fight. Aided by new canning processes, the completion of the Baltimore & Ohio Railroad and the introduction of the mechanical dredge from New England, the oyster industry exploded. At its peak, the Chesapeake Bay yielded as many as 15 million bushels of oysters a year, with exports shipped as far as China. The Chesapeake's oysters fed gold miners in California, made captains greedy enough to shanghai men for their boats and attracted European scientists seeking ways to replenish the continent's depleted beds. The Baltimore Harbor housed 60 packing companies, according to Wennersten's research, and Crisfield alone boasted a fleet of 600 boats. Like any valuable and easily exploited resource, Wennersten wrote in his book, "The Oyster Wars of Chesapeake Bay," the oyster attracted entrepreneurs and vagabonds alike to Baltimore and Eastern Shore boom towns like Crisfield. With so much at stake amid a sort of gold-rush lawlessness, violence was inevitable. "The attitude of the watermen is that the Lord put those oysters in there to be taken out . . . . Everybody believed it was his God-given right to exploit the resource" regardless of state laws or common-sense conservation pratices, Wennersten said. In the early 1870s, tensions escalated between tongers -- who gathered oysters with hand-held scissor rakes -- and the "drudgers" -- the local patois for dredgers, who dragged a metal claw behind their boats and winched it in teeming with oysters. By law, dredges were restricted to the bay's deeper waters; but as those supplies dwindled, dredgers turned to the tongers' province, raking thousands of bushels from the reef-like "rocks" of oysters along shallower river bottoms. Tempers ran so high, with tongers even mounting cannon on the shore, that lawmakers established the Maryland Oyster Navy to enforce fishing rules. Outmanned and outsailed by the hundreds of "oyster pirates" raiding the beds, the navy's members were quick to open fire during surprise, moonlit raids, and the dredgers were happy to fire back. At the same time, battles were fought -- in the courtroom, in legislative halls, and on the water -- over whether Maryland or Virginia owned the rich fishing grounds around Tangier Sound. Watermen from each state accused the others of poaching, and frequently they traded gunfire. The result was two decades of fighting that culminated late in the 1880s when the Oyster Navy became more determined, and the exhaustion of oyster beds made watermen more desperate. The skirmishes were worthy of any high-seas adventure. In December 1888, Capt. Thomas C.B. Howard of the Oyster Navy was ordered to rout the outlaw waterman Gus Rice from the Chester River, where he dredged alongside as many as 70 other poachers. Entering the river, Howard commanded the police steamer McLane to ram an armada of 12 oyster boats that Rice's men had lashed together in anticipation of the fight. Two of the boats were sunk, both carrying shanghaied crewmen who drowned in their locked berths; two other boats and a dozen prisoners were captured. Other battles went to the pirates. Early in 1889, the crew of the police boat E.B. Groome was captured and put to work manning the winch of a dredge. In Tangier Sound, residents of Smith Island fortified the shoreline and repelled Virginia oyster police, chasing their watermen across the state line. The rivalries that developed during those years continue today. It was not until 1981 that the boundary dispute between Maryland and Virginia, a conflict as old as the country, was finally resolved with a U.S. Supreme Court ruling that the two states could not prohibit watermen from crossing the border.