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The Maryland Department of Natural Resources is considering criteria to allow oyster harvesting in the St. Mary’s River sanctuary even as an environmental group and some residents fight to close off any commercial harvest from the waterway.

The St. Mary’s River sanctuary, like all others in the state, by law already allows limited commercial leasing and oyster harvesting, Mike Naylor, assistant director of DNR’s fishery service, said.

The department is considering setting criteria that would keep areas already ripe with wild oysters off limits — think of it as sanctuaries within the sanctuary. At the same time, other barren, largely oyster-free bottom — as much as 10 percent of the sanctuary — would remain up for grabs for private lease.

An initial proposal laid out last week in Lexington Park would make off limits any area found to have 15 or more oysters per square meter.

“It’s really been designed specifically with the St. Mary’s River in mind,” Naylor said. The St. Mary’s, he said, is about the only sanctuary in the state that has significant numbers of oysters growing in areas other than what are defined as traditional oyster bars.

Naylor said that DNR is leaning toward defining some kind of criteria, but that those criteria are still negotiable. He said the department so far has received no support for what he called the status quo, which sets no criteria for the number of oysters per area and would allow leasing in most any area of the sanctuary, even those with significant wild oysters.

Environmentalists and others said they disagree that the state law allows some commercial oyster harvest from sanctuaries.

“Why not give this thing a chance? Why not give this river 10 or 15 years [of no harvesting] to give it a chance?” Joe Anderson, president of the St. Mary’s River Watershed Association, said.

He and others said a sanctuary should be just that, completely off-limits to any harvesting.

Naylor said that having commercial watermen plant oysters on their own leased bottoms could help propagate wild oysters. The commercially planted oysters would also work to filter the water while they grow to market size, which takes two to three years.

He said that in his experience, lease-holders can be some of the biggest advocates for water quality because they have a monetary stake in the river. They also are more likely to harvest legally — in prescribed times and areas — because otherwise they would run the risk of losing their license and lease, he said.

Initially in 2010 oyster sanctuaries were established as areas that would not allow any commercial oyster harvesting.

Naylor said that was an oversight, and that some managed leasing would be appropriate and likely beneficial to help with the restoration process in sanctuaries.

Revisions to the lease law were made in 2011 to open up as much as 10 percent of a sanctuary to commercial leasing and harvesting. Approved leaseholders must actively work and harvest their leased areas.

In the case of the St. Mary’s River’s roughly 1,300-acre sanctuary, that would mean 130 acres could be leased. There are already 19 acres leased by a waterman that were grandfathered into the sanctuary.

There are currently 11 completed lease applications on file for the St. Mary’s River, ranging from less than an acre to 21 acres. Together they comprise about 90 acres, Naylor said.

None have been approved yet, and some do lie within areas that likely contain at least 15 oysters per square meter, and would not be allowed if that is the criteria adopted.

Certain other areas would be off limits for leasing, including any historic Yates bars, which are places mapped 100 years ago as containing oysters. Those bars may or may not still be productive today.

Also, anywhere within 50 feet of a shoreline or pier is off limits to leasing. There are other setbacks and designated areas off-limits as well, Naylor said.

Naylor said that fishermen interested in leases could apply for a specific area and then DNR will check what the oyster density is within that area. It would too difficult to map densities for every square meter of the river, and depending on the size and placement of a particular lease, the average density in that area would vary.

The watershed association said not setting any criteria is unacceptable. Members of the association said DNR has not provided to the public or the association any maps of the river showing what areas would be off-limits to leasing if the density criteria was applied. Until more information is gathered, they said, it is difficult to comment on the second option.

DNR is accepting public comment until the end of December; email fisheriespubliccomment@dnr.state.mud.us.

jyeatman@somdnews.com