GLOUCESTER POINT, Va. (AP) — Volunteers work amid whiffs of cocktail sauce and Tabasco, cleaning shells collected from shucking houses and restaurants that may end up one day on a holiday table with plump, new oysters glistening in their center.

The shell recycling by these retirees and new college graduates is a labor of love. They painstakingly clean each shell so it can be matched to a baby oyster larvae and returned to the Chesapeake Bay and tributaries, helping to replenish a bivalve population battered by decades of disease, pollution and overharvesting.

Today, the Chesapeake Bay oyster numbers only about 1 or 2 percent of its historic highs.

More and more, however, thousands of residents and small-scale operations around the environmentally crippled estuary are pitching in on the task of gathering shells for new reefs, oyster farming on leased tributaries and dropping grow cages off docks for “oyster gardens.”

Do-it-yourself oystering alone will not revive one of the bay’s signature seafood catches, scientists and activists acknowledge.

But they say it is making a difference by illuminating the plight of the shellfish by getting people involved in their recovery and behind a massive federal plan to restore the bay’s health.

Roger Mann, a scientist at the Virginia Institute of Marine Sciences who has been studying oysters for decades, likens the DIY effort to a political movement inspired by the bay’s declining health and the oyster’s near demise.

“Look at the Tea Party,” he said. “If you get enough people riled up enough, people get enjoined and they do things.”

In their heyday, oyster reefs were so thick in the bay some likened the catch industry to a mining operation rather than a commercial fishery. In the 1880s, according to one estimate, a year’s harvest would now fill today’s equivalent of FedEx Field, home of the Washington Redskins.

In the 1980s, however, two diseases nearly wiped out the native oyster, whose hardened shell serves like coral in the tropics to provide habitat for a vast array of marine life.

Besides disease, the environmental consequences of 17 million people living around the estuary and overharvesting also have taken their toll.

The 64,000-square-mile watershed is the focus of an effort ordered by President Barack Obama to restore one of the world’s largest estuaries.

Today, the approaches to reviving the bay’s oyster stocks are a complex mosaic and vary sharply from the two states that sandwich the bay, Maryland and Virginia. Recovery efforts include genetically modified oysters used in aquaculture and the creation of sanctuaries.

Then there’s Tommy Leggett and his crew.

Leggett is a bearded, ruddy-faced waterman overseeing the Gloucester Point volunteers one cool, sunny day along the York River. His crew was feeding shells into a clattering grain elevator salvaged from a Harrisonburg farm supply store.

They run the shells up the conveyor, through a blast of water to remove any sauces, organic remnants or sodden oyster crackers, then  into a tumbler to shake loose any final remnants of their past lives.

“We want a shell like this — pearly white,” Leggett said, holding up a cleaned shell.

The shells are collected from seafood festivals and restaurants, and are critical to re-establishing oyster reefs. For years, the shells were not returned to the water, and ultimately ended up in landfills or as hard surfaces for driveways or roads.

“That’s why our reefs are gone,” said Leggett, who leads this effort for the Chesapeake Bay Foundation. “They didn’t put the resources back into the bay.”

Returning the shells to the water creates the hard surface for oysters to grow and multiply.

Among the volunteers working with Leggett is Rich Steimle, 63, a retired Environmental Protection Agency official who once helped clean up toxic waste sites. This day, he’s feeding shells into the conveyor. He’s been working with Leggett for three years.

Steimle has lived around the bay for 35 years, grows oysters himself, and sees this as his opportunity to give back.

“I’ve always fished on it and crabbed and I’ve always been interested in keeping it clean,” he said. “Now that I’m retired, I get a lot of gratification doing this hands-on work.”

The cleaned shells ultimately end up in an 800-gallon tank, where they are matched with larvae from oyster hatcheries. The end result: baby oysters that attach to the shells. The reborn shells are then returned to the bay, river sanctuaries and rivers.

Mountains of shells, cleaned and waiting to be cleaned, line the point where Leggett and his crew of about a dozen volunteers work.

The availability of shells, however, is down sharply because of last summer’s oil spill disaster in the Gulf of Mexico. Many Gulf oysters are sent to shucking houses lining the Chesapeake Bay.

Maryland has been a leader in this grassroots approach to oyster recovery. The nonprofit Oyster Recovery Partnership dates to the 90s and has thousands of Maryland residents growing oysters from their docks. It reported a record year in 2009, planting 750,000 oysters in Maryland’s portion of the bay.

In Virginia, the Bay Foundation produces more than 200,000 native oysters for restoration annually under a program created in 2000.

Stephan Abel, executive director of the Maryland partnership, said the program invests residents in the oyster’s recovery. He estimates 7,000 cages used by dockside growers tethered in the water.

“The individual pier owners up here who are growing oysters at the docks, it’s ownership,” he said. “They feel they’re actually having a positive impact.”

Virginia has been at the forefront of oyster aquaculture, the farming of the bivalve using genetically altered oysters to resist diseases or hasten their maturity so they can be harvested before disease strikes.

Stan Allen, a scientist at the Virginia Institute of Marine Science, is leading this effort to transform oysters into “farm animals.” He says the two approaches — farm oysters and restoration using native stocks — are compatible because farming can ease harvest pressures on the oysters that volunteers return to the bay.

“The two are sort of hand and glove, in a way,” he said.

“Even though the overall effort is small-scale compared to the challenge, the awareness and that education that they provide is invaluable.”

For Emily Crawford, 24 and a recent college graduate from Galax, her role on Leggett’s crew paid off recently when she saw a photograph of oysters crowded on a reef ball she helped construct.

“It’s just kind of cool to see your work grow and to know the work you did has an impact on the bay.”

(Copyright 2010 by The Associated Press. All Rights Reserved.)

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