"The good news about oysters is if we do it right and give them a chance . . . they produce huge numbers of eggs each year," she said. "It's a prolific species that can provide this habitat again, to the extent that we allow it."
That message hasn't fallen on deaf ears. This month, Virginia plans to embark on its largest state-funded oyster replenishment in history, focusing on sites in the James, York, and Rappahannock rivers and in the Chesapeake in Pocomoke and Tangier sounds, according to the Virginia Marine Resources Commission.
The state has already created huge sanctuaries in public waters where watermen are restricted to harvesting oysters on a rotating basis about every two years. In March, the Virginia Marine Police hit 10 people with 115 charges related to oyster violations.
Maryland has been even more aggressive about restoring oyster habitat, pouring $50 million into oyster recovery over the past 16 years. Oyster harvesting is forbidden by the state on a quarter of the bars where they grow; violations can draw fines of up to $25,000 and as many as 15 years in prison.
For years, Maryland scientists at the Horn Point Oyster Hatchery in Cambridge have put oysters in the mood to mate, bathing them in warm water tanks. When the vibe is right, the males spew sperm, the females spread eggs and, soon, larvae develop.
The larvae live on a steady diet of algae until they develop into spat - like teenagers ready to move on to shells of their own. Millions are taken by boat onto the Choptank and Harris Creek and dropped onto reefs.
Cornwell and Kellogg hope their work will encourage states to fulfill a mission to create 98 acres of reef a year - even though the diseases that kill the bivalves continue to be a threat.
"You have to leave them out, have them develop a resistance and have a self-sustaining population," he said. "There has to be a jump-start to have the oysters come back in a more natural way."
Cornwell paused for a few seconds, thinking about the risk. "If they're all dead soon, you have to evaluate the value," he said.