JAMESTOWN, Va. (AP) -- The state is amid its largest-ever oyster replenishment, with the aim of delivering up to 1 million bushels of empty shells to Virginia waters to provide a natural nursery for the briny delicacy.
The Virginia Marine Resources Commission, which is conducting the replenishment, is mining fossilized shells from beneath the James River to load onto barges that deliver them to oyster grounds in the lower James, Mobjack Bay, the York River and Tangier Island in the middle of the Chesapeake Bay.
The shells provide habitat so naturally occurring oyster larvae can attach to them during spawning and mature for harvest.
The oyster population in the bay is a fraction of historic highs. Oyster stocks have been decimated by disease and pollution, which has taken its toll on other marine species.
The replenishment began in May with the spreading of an estimated 200,000 bushels of shells obtained from shucking houses. The shells were deposited in the Rappahannock, Piankatank and Wicomico rivers.
The mining operation off Jamestown began last week. The shells are being dredged up 40 feet beneath the James River.
The replenishment is being funded by $2 million in the state budget, approved by Gov. Bob McDonnell and legislators.
"This is a win for the health of the Chesapeake Bay, for oyster-lovers and our hard-working watermen," McDonnell said in a statement.
VMRC estimates that for every $1 spent to plant oyster shells yields $7 in economic benefits in terms of increased jobs for oystermen, shuckers, packers and shippers.
Virginia Natural Resources Secretary Doug Domenech said the replenishment will mine approximately 1 billion shells, enough to fill 4,000 dump trucks.
Jack Travelsted, commissioner of VMRC, said the shells will remain untouched for several years as they spawn a new generation of oysters, but will removed before they are susceptible to diseases that have nearly wiped out native oysters.
"We don't want to see these oysters wasted to disease," he said.
The state's oyster harvest has increased from 23,000 bushels in 2001 to 250,000 bushels in 2012. The 2012 harvest was the largest since 1989.
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