Virginia watermen have removed more than 28,000 "ghost" crab pots from the Chesapeake Bay watershed over the past three years as part of a federal and state effort to restore the crab population.

The Virginia Institute of Marine Science announced the results Friday, saying the program provided clear economic and environmental benefits.

Virginia received $15 million from the federal government in 2008 to restore the crab population, which had plummeted to record lows due to overharvesting, loss of habitat and pollution. The state set aside another $3.5 million to remove the "ghost" _ or abandoned _ crab pots that continued to catch and kill crabs.

The state outfitted 70 watermen, many of whom were unemployed because the state canceled the winter dredge season _ with sonar equipment to find the pots over the winter months. They were paid $300 per day plus fuel costs.

Over the past three winters, watermen removed 28,186 pots from the Bay and its tributaries.

"There's a great public benefit to this. And there's a great benefit to nature," said Douglas Domenech, Virginia Secretary of Natural Resources.

Virginia Marine Resources Commission spokesman John M.R. Bull said there is enough money to fund a partial program next winter.

A continuation of the program in Virginia could help ease tension between watermen and the commission if the latter decides to cancel the winter dredge season for fourth consecutive year.

Rep. Rob Wittman, R-Westmoreland, praised the program because it brings together scientists and watermen, two groups often at odds, to make the bay safer for crabs and people.

But Wittman acknowledged it's "going to be a challenge" to convince Congress to put more money into the program.