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Effective Dec. 31, the Southern Maryland Oyster Cultivation Society will end any further oyster restoration efforts in area waters.

“We’ve hit our goal. Oxygen and reproduction rates are up and disease and mortality rates are down,” said Len Zuza, president of the group.

In 2011, the society projected it would reach a goal of planting 3.5 million live oysters in Solomons Harbor — along Back Creek, Mill Creek and St. John’s Creek — by 2015. This summer, it will have planted more than 10 million oysters, surpassing its goal by two years and 6.5 million oysters.

According to the Maryland Department of Natural Resources, a density of 15 to 50 oysters per square meter on a restoration site is considered healthy. Southern Maryland Oyster Cultivation Society has achieved a density of more than 200 oysters per square meter on its major sites.

“I can’t tell you how many positive responses I’ve received. I have a great deal of satisfaction knowing that we’ve been successful,” Zuza said.

Zuza and five others started Southern Maryland Oyster Cultivation Society in 2007 with a goal of restoring oysters to the Patuxent River, using a method called “spat on shell,” which is when baby oysters, or spat, are attached to oyster shells and allowed to grow. Initially, the group met with resistance.

“Back in 2002, oyster mortality was 52 percent. Everyone was concerned about nutrient pollution, but they thought it was already too far gone. Why go after a losing cause? Now, the mortality rate is 7 percent,” Zuza said.

Zuza now credits the group’s success to generous support from members and friends.

“We’ve had a lot of children involved,” said Matt Regan, vice president of the group. “It’s heartening to see kids wanting to help their environment. We hope they had fun and learned something.”

Regan has talked to students throughout Maryland about oysters, with tank demonstrations so students can witness how oysters clear the water. Oysters act as natural water filters by feeding on algae — one adult oyster filters about 50 gallons of water each day — but years of pollution and disease have decimated the oyster population.

The Southern Maryland Oyster Cultivation Society has run into some logistical problems, hindering further efforts. An adequate supply of shells cannot be obtained to prepare beds for where oysters will be placed. In addition, DNR has placed new guidelines for planting oysters that have caused operational problems. Zuza and other board members have decided to pause and observe whether the oyster reefs they have planted will survive and continue to reproduce.

“From the very beginning of our program, we knew that we needed to follow the best scientific advice that we could get, but that, in the long run, Mother Nature would ultimately determine whether our program would succeed. And she seems to be smiling on our efforts,” Zuza said.

snewman@somdnews.com