Maryland has moved closer to opening a special hatchery to rear oyster larvae free of disease - a key component of a statewide oyster restoration strategy approved last fall.

Rep. Steny Hoyer, (D-Md.), recently succeeded in having an appropriations subcommittee allot $500,000 for the project.

"Our watermen are losing jobs, our state is losing a historic industry, our people are losing a delicacy, and the Chesapeake Bay is suffering as a decline in the oyster population affects the water quality of the Bay," Hoyer said. "In speaking with the s ubcommittee members, I indicated the urgency in beginning to turn around this decline and through this appropriation, we will begin that process."

The bill was approved by the full House in June, but still must clear the Senate. Officials, though, were optimistic about the funding.

Using the money, the Maryland Department of Natural Resources will refurbish its hatchery at Piney Point to raise disease-free oyster larvae. Increasing hatchery production of disease-free larvae was one of the key recommendations of an "action plan" ado pted by the state's Oyster Roundtable last year.

The roundtable, which included state mangers, scientists, watermen, environmentalists, and others, was charged with finding ways to restore the state's beleaguered oyster population which has been devastated by disease.

One of its recommendations was that "oyster recovery areas" be created where limited - and in some places no - harvesting would be allowed in order to test different restoration ideas.

One such idea was to use disease-free oyster larvae to restore populations in those upstream recovery areas. Scientists hope that seasonal pulses of fresh water may help keep the oyster diseases - which require high salinity water - further downstream, a way from the replenished beds. There is also some hope that the larvae - drawn from areas where diseases are not a problem - may develop some resistance, or tolerance, to the diseases.

"The theory behind the oyster recovery plan is that if we establish these populations up the rivers, it will put some pressure against further incursion of the disease, and maybe even push it back down the river," said Pete Jensen, director of the DNR's Fisheries Division. "The hatcheries are a critical element in developing these upriver populations."

Some experimental oyster spat for the hatchery are being hatched this year from oysters on the Nanticoke River where there has been little disease pressure, Jensen said.

Jensen estimated that oyster production at the hatchery was about two years away. Eventually, he said, production at the facility might reach about 200 million spat, which would seed about 300-400 acres of oyster habitat annually.