The Virginia Marine Resources Commission will set aside more than 1,000 acres of prime, state-owned water bottoms for the farming of shellfish in cages to further promote aquaculture in the commonwealth.

Under a plan expected to be approved at its Jan. 25 meeting, the commission would create 15 new Aquaculture Opportunity Zones.

The zones-identified through extensive, on-site commission inspections-are located on hard bottom, in clean shallow waters without underwater grasses that must be protected to preserve their value as nurseries for fish and crabs. These zones also are sufficiently sheltered, within reasonable distance of off-loading sites and are not within the riparian areas of waterfront property owners.

The zones are not on privately leased oyster grounds or on public oyster grounds known as Baylor Grounds.

The zones are located in the Rappahannock River, in tributaries of Mobjack Bay and around Tangier Island. They total 1,004.3 acres. Roughly half of the total zone acreage is near Tangier.

In the new aquaculture opportunity zones, the commission will waive the normal costs to lease water bottoms for private oyster growing, including surveying, advertising, deed recording and the payment of annual rent. These costs typically range from $600 to $1,100.

A streamlined permitting process will eliminate time-consuming surveying and advertising requirements. A simple application will be required, spelling out how many shellfish cages are to be placed, and where and how they would be placed.

"This is an incredible deal," said Jack Travelstead, VMRC fisheries chief. "Shellfish aquaculture is more dependable than going out and catching oysters, and reduces pressure on our wild stocks that have been suffering under the pressure of two oyster diseases. Also, we will continue to train commercial watermen in aquaculture as much as our budget allows."

The new aquaculture zones will be divided into a maximum of 5-acre blocks and assigned on a first-come, first-serve basis. A one-time application fee of $100 will be levied, although some annual fees may apply. Only Virginia residents may apply. Harvest reporting is mandatory. Other permits may be required. Only on-bottom cages will be permitted in the new aquaculture zones, marked by one buoy each.

The Aquaculture Opportunity Zones are authorized under a bipartisan bill sponsored by Del. Albert Pollard that passed the Virginia General Assembly earlier this year and was signed into law by Gov. Robert F. McDonnell.

"Shellfish have an amazing ability to purge the water, which will help clean the Bay, and the economic benefits from an expanded aquaculture industry are potentially quite substantial," said Doug Domenech, Virginia's Secretary of Natural Resources. "This is a win-win."