ANNAPOLIS -- Private cultivation of oysters could help rebuild the Chesapeake Bay's dwindling oyster stock, but changes in the law are needed to encourage the industry, a legislative committee was told last week.

Three watermen who grow oysters on leased beds said the state should be encouraging more use of aquaculture, the water-based equivalent of farming.

"We need this aquaculture. We need it bad," J.C. Webster, who has a leased bed in the Nanticoke River, said at a hearing before two workgroups of the House Environmental Matters Committee.

"It can work. It is very profitable," Webster said. "If we can all pull together, the oyster industry in the state of Maryland can survive."

The Aquaculture Workgroup and the Oyster Workgroup are both looking for ways the state can help restore the oyster industry in Maryland.

The harvest dropped below one million pounds for the first time last year and is expected to fall even more this year.

Two diseases, MSX and dermo, are destroying oysters in much of the Chesapeake Bay south of the bay bridge, and state officials say the outlook is grim.

Peter Jensen, head of the Tidewater Administration in the Department of Natural Resources, said the state has a policy of supporting aquaculture, but that "there are a lot of limits on what we can do."

"We are looking for a signal from the legislature" on how far the state should go to encourage farming of the bay, Jensen said.

Watermen have strenuously opposed extension of aquaculture, and their opposition has played a major role in the decision of the state to adopt strict limits on private use of the bay.

"What they are really against is a huge corporation coming in and dominating the market," Jensen said. "We are participating in the development of an aquaculture plan. We think that's the way to go."

Casey Todd, a seafood packer from Crisfield, said Maryland is losing its oyster markets to Louisiana, which has a mixture of public and private oyster beds, and the West Coast, "which are almost entirely private."

"We manage our oyster industry by restricting the harvest and making it hard to catch them," Todd said.

"I'm not against a public fishery, but you need more of a mixture of public and private," he sai