A panel of experts is urging Virginia to double its spending and overhaul its management to bolster native oyster restoration efforts in the Bay.

The recommendations, made public in early August, stemmed from a yearlong study by the Blue Ribbon Oyster Panel, which consisted of scientists, seafood merchants, state experts, environmentalists and federal officials.

But they acknowledged that bringing back native oysters, which have been hard hit by diseases, poor water quality and foraging cownose rays, would be a long-term project.

"The Panel believes our native oyster restoration will take significant time, resources and continuity of effort to achieve success in both ecological and economic terms," the report concluded.

Oysters were once the backbone of a powerful industry, but their population is now about 1 percent of their historic levels despite 15 years and $45 million of restoration efforts.

The panel's report called for an overhaul of oyster management, saying that each major river system, Bay region and seaside coastal embayment should have a management plan that describes specific objectives for put-and-take harvests, sanctuaries and other activities. In each, management triggers would be set to determine when and how harvest occurs.

In those areas, it also urges a new rotating system of planting baby oysters-or spat-and letting them grow for several years, then allowing their limited harvest by watermen. The panel believes this on-again, off-again approach could help struggling businesses as well as the environment.

The report urges state lawmakers to approve $2.5 million next year for various initiatives, more than double this year's allocation.

Among other recommendations, the panel said the state should:

  • Expand private hatchery capacity to produce larvae that can be used for spat production for the public fishery.
  • Expand the role of aquaculture, which the panel said will play an increasingly important part in revitalizing the oyster industry. It said the Virginia Marine Resources Commission needed to boost efforts to train watermen in aquaculture techniques.
  • Improve the understanding of management options for the cownose ray, including investing in both a fishing infrastructure to help curb ray populations, which are blamed for demolishing some restoration sites, and research to better understand ray biology so that they, too, do not become overharvested.

The report said that with available funds, it is likely the state will only be effective in a few waterways in the next five to 10 years. The panel recommends that ecological restoration efforts should be targeted toward areas that have shown evidence of recent progress, including Eastern Shore seaside coastal bays and the Lynnhaven, Great Wicomico and Piankatank rivers.

The report said it is also critical that all Bay states step up efforts to improve water quality to protect oysters and maintain the Bay ecosystem.

The Virginia Marine Resources Commission, the lead state agency for oyster recovery, was to review the report in late August.