The Maryland Department of Natural Resources still wants to hear from the public on how it should manage cownose rays, a migratory species that bowhunters enjoy killing for sport and conservationists wish to save because of their beauty and importance to the ecosystem.

The department has put a revised notice on its fishing regulations web page saying it will take comments through Jan. 8 on whether and how it should limit bowfishing for rays.

The latest comment period marks the third time in as many months that the department has sought the public’s opinion on cownose rays, kite-like creatures that glide through the Chesapeake Bay beginning in May to spawn, giving birth to one live pup a year.

Watermen have long griped that the rays ate oysters, though a recent study found rays weren’t responsible for reducing the Bay’s oyster population – debunking a previous study that helped usher in an open season on the animals.

For nearly two decades, bowfishermen participated in tournaments in both Maryland and Virginia, shooting the rays at close range and often shoving their just-born pups back inside the rays’ abdomens so the bloody catch would be logged in at a higher weight. The contests did not draw much notice until the summer of 2015, when animal-rights groups videotaped the contests. They put the videos online, and local television stations ran them, sparking outrage and calls for both Maryland and Virginia to ban the tournaments.

Officials in both states initially maintained they could not just ban the tournaments. Neither had a management plan for rays, a species that never took off commercially because even a skilled chef has a hard time cooking out the bitter urea flavor.

Laurie Naismith, spokeswoman for the Virginia Marine Resources Commission, said the state’s fisheries regulators didn’t want to react to a “viral video” without doing due diligence on a complicated issue, but wanted to learn more about both the role of rays in the ecosystem and the impact of bowfishing.

Stephen Schatz, the DNR’s spokesman, had much the same to say over the summer. "We do not have authority to manage contests or tournaments, and there is insufficient data for the development of a management plan,” he said.

But after the media frenzy died down, Maryland’s department began quietly considering options, Schatz explained recently. The state could, perhaps, pass a regulation prohibiting certain types of gear; it could ban bowfishing altogether, it could ban the practice when the rays enter the Chesapeake, or it could ban shooting them when they are known to be pregnant or have just spawned, in the summer months.

On Oct. 18, the department informed its Tidal Fisheries and Sport Fisheries advisory commissions that it was “scoping” or considering issuing a regulation to declare cownose rays “in need of conservation,” a term giving the department authority to regulate the harvest of the species. The DNR then said it was weighing a ban on the use of archery gear to catch rays from July until December. The document sent to the commissions added: “cownose rays are not likely to threaten oyster populations within Chesapeake Bay.”

On Oct. 26, DNR staff published the scoping announcement for rays on its fisheries web page. Animal-rights groups shared it on Twitter. The post said the question was whether to “list cownose rays as in need of conservation and create daily catch limits.”

But just one day later, the announcement disappeared from the DNR’s web site.  Department officials did not explain why. But in a series of emails obtained by the Bay Journal via a public-records request, Fisheries Director Dave Blazer told DNR Secretary Mark Belton that the announcement had been taken down, and “we will hold until further notice.”

Belton emailed in reply: “OK, thanks, I appreciate it…just answer any questions on it by letting people know I’m not comfortable yet with the scoping specifics.”

In a later email, the secretary clarified, “again, if we get questions about no declaration for a need of conservation, that’s because I’m not comfortable taking that step at this time.”

The next day, Virginia radio reporter Pam D’Angelo, after learning on Twitter that the announcement had been removed called the DNR to inquire why. Officials told her they were going through the normal scoping process, which is also what they told the Bay Journal.

But what happened next wasn’t typical. The scoping announcement reappeared Friday Nov. 4, with a deadline for all comments just six days hence — Thursday, Nov. 10. After receiving a deluge of comments and complaints, the department extended the period to Sunday, Nov. 13.

The DNR sought to compress the comment period, Schatz explained later in an interview, because the department had hoped to get the regulation published in the Maryland Register and have the matter finalized by summer, when the bowfishing tournaments start.

Typically, federal and state agencies take comments for 30 days on planned actions.  In the truncated 9-day comment period the DNR set, the agency received more than 200 comments. A summary released at the Bay Journal’s request showed some commenters asked the department to ban tournaments altogether, while some wanted archery gear banned and others wanted the bowfishing ban to begin in May.  Others wrote in to say “stop the killing” and “help the helpless creatures.” One commented that a ban would hurt the charter boat industry, while a few others said that the department did not have enough information yet.

Most of the comments the department received were in favor of some sort of restriction, mirroring the more than two dozen comments on the Bay Journal article regarding the scoping process.

When asked by the Bay Journal what made him uncomfortable about the original DNR scoping announcement document, Belton replied in an email:

"From what we know, Maryland is the first state to address the status of this largely unknown, migratory species. We thought it prudent to take a balanced approach to the population out of an abundance of caution and utilize our authority to limit the use of specific gear types (archery/projectiles) during a specific time frame (July-Dec.).”

The DNR’s revised approach to rays is different, as spelled out in the new scoping announcement posted in mid-December. There is no more mention of possibly declaring the rays as a species “in need of conservation.”

Schatz, the DNR spokesman, said that designation had been dropped because officials were not yet sure they had information to justify declaring rays in need of conservation.

Instead, the new document says that the November call for public comment “was not completely clear regarding where the restriction would apply,” in terms of recreational and commercial fishermen. Though there is no market for rays right now as a commercial species, commercial fishermen wanted a clarification on how the rule would affect them, Schatz said.

The newest version of the scoping keeps the July to December time frame, but focuses on possibly prohibiting the use of certain types of gear to catch rays, instead of banning tournaments.

For recreational fishers, that means the DNR may prohibit “projectile gear,” meaning archery equipment, gig, spear and spear gun, for taking cownose rays during the period from July 1 through Dec. 31.

For commercial fishermen, the DNR is weighing prohibiting the use of archery equipment only for taking rays from July 1 through December 31, because the agency’s authority to regulate gear is more limited in this case. The DNR secretary said he believed some people would have other ideas about ways to protect rays besides prohibiting certain fishing gear. Belton said the department wants to hear from them.

"Public engagement is essential to our work here at the department and we encourage citizens, from anglers to animal rights advocates, to supply their thoughts on the proposed ideas,” Belton said via email. “The whole point of the scoping process is to ensure that public comment and feedback is accepted and incorporated."

A proposed regulation covering commercial fishing for rays is scheduled to be printed in the Maryland Register at the end of January 2017, according to the notice posted on the DNR website. The notice did not spell out a time frame for proposing a change to recreational fishing regulations to deal with bowfishing for rays.

To review and comment on the DNR's plan, go here.