Le Roy Chauvin envisions a day when oysters will grow by the millions on the surface of the water in wire-mesh bags.

After half a century of working the seas and bays of south Louisiana, Chauvin has a mission: to get people to grow oysters using an age-old technique called "off-bottom culturing."

"I've been selling products from the sea since 1953," Chauvin said. "It's all about natural knowledge and natural experience."

For him and others in Louisiana, off-bottom culturing -- in which oysters are grown on the surface of the water in bags suspended from poles rather than on reefs -- is viewed as a way to rejuvenate Louisiana's oyster industry.

"These oysters grow like weeds off bottom," said John Supan, a Louisiana State University researcher who is experimenting with the technique, which has been practiced in Japan for centuries.

At a hatchery south of New Orleans, Chauvin glues baby oysters to plastic holders and puts bunches of them in plastic-coated wire cages near the top of the water. With more sunlight, fewer bacteria and more food available at the surface, Chauvin said, oysters grow much faster than they do on reefs.

"We start with oysters as big as your little fingernail and we get four inches in 12 months. And on the bottom it takes 36 to 48 months," he said.

Chauvin said an acre of off-bottom oysters produces the equivalent of 30 acres on the bottom, cuts down on much of the work and rids the need of building up deteriorating reefs with oyster shell or other hard substances.

Chauvin sees another reason to turn away from harvesting oysters off reefs: The reefs are disappearing.

"A lot of places don't grow oysters because they don't have good bottoms," Chauvin said.

In many places, fishermen say, Louisiana's sea bottoms have become muddy flats churned up by hurricanes, coastal erosion and oyster dredging. In other states, oystermen use the less destructive method of picking oysters off the bottom with tongs.

Chauvin hopes to get his message out through an "oyster school."

In September, Terrebonne Parish officials leased a former crab-picking plant in Pointe-aux-Chenes to Chauvin so he can teach others about his technique. He hopes to open it next September.

"I can see something like this having the possibility of catching on," said Patrick Banks, the state program manager for oysters.