The Virginia Marine Resources Commission approved $2.1 million for oyster restoration, banking most of the money on a new, promising approach to restoring the Chesapeake Bay oyster.

The funding approved in January will help to continue “spat-on-shell” oyster replenishment. Using this technique, about a dozen hatchery-raised or wild oyster spat are attached to single shells, which are then placed in Bay tributaries.

In clusters, the spat-on-shell oysters are less susceptible to predatory cownose rays, which swarm river bottoms and gorge on single, unprotected baby oysters.

The Chesapeake Bay Foundation worked on one experiment with an oyster-shucking house on the Northern Neck over the last year and a half. It yielded what some have called extraordinary results.

The 2007 funding includes $540,000 to plant 28,000 bushels of seed oysters for future harvest in the Rappahannock River and two Potomac River tributaries on the Northern Neck. The restoration plan also offers incentive money to hatcheries to not only produce larvae but build the infrastructure to meet the increased demand for spat.

Finally, $200,000 is targeted at fighting cownose rays by creating a commercial market for their meat. “The ray issue is the biggest issue we have to deal with right now,” said Jim Wesson, the commission’s oyster specialist.

While no one is claiming spat-on-shell oyster experiments will resurrect the native oyster, it’s one approach that has worked in Maryland. Virginia’s oyster harvest was about 100,000 bushels in 2005. While that was the best in decades, it still is a fraction of the million-plus bushel landings that were routinely harvested every year before the 1970s.