Our seventh critter on the list is an unlucky one: the cownose ray.
Of the Chesapeake’s many creatures, there are few more beautiful than the majestic, kite-shaped creatures. Watching them glide in clear waters of Tangier Sound and the Patuxent River is one of summer’s great pleasures.
But not if you’re a waterman.
Those who work the Chesapeake have long complained that rays, for which there is not much of a commercial market nor enough natural predators, are eating their prized catch. (The problem is that rays taste like urine, and must be soaked a long time to remove the taste. Frying them beyond cognition was once thought to work, too, as a Virginia seafood manager once hoped they could replace clam strips on buffet tables as places like Shoney’s. But I’ve tried fried ray, and, well, you’re better off with the clam strip.)
Rays eat it all — crabs, menhaden, and oysters. Moreover, because rays have never been much of a commercial species, scientists did not have a good handle on how many rays were in the Chesapeake, where they went when they left, when and how many pups they raised, and how to manage the population for the future.
For almost two decades, an under-the-radar bowfishing tournament targeted rays. Last summer, an animal rights group filmed it, and the results were gruesome. As our story from the time stated:
The video showed men shooting rays at close range, then beating them with baseball bats and suffocating them in cold water. Many of these rays were pregnant, and their babies were clinging to life as the men massacred their mothers. Sexually mature rays give birth once a year at most, making the bloodletting all the more disturbing.
The video spread around the world, leaving fisheries managers to answer questions for which they were unprepared. Environmental groups begged officials in Maryland and Virginia to ban these ray bowfishing tournaments. But how could they ban a fishery on an animal that currently had no restrictions? It was difficult to reconcile the disturbing footage with the lack of information about the species. And, officials said, they didn’t want to make policy decisions on account of a viral video.
So now, officials in both states as well as the Bay Program are looking at how to manage rays. Already, studies from the Virginia Institute for Marine Science tell us much more about their mating habits and migration than we knew before. But it also points out that, even in this information age, there is so much we don’t know about the species that co-exist with us. We ought not wait until they’re in jeopardy to study them, and we ought not only prize them when they suit our palates.