Marylanders have a chance this week to make their voices heard.
No, this is not about the election of the next president or a U.S. senator. It is about the protection of the cownose ray, the big kite-shaped marine creature that scientists say has gotten a bad rap as a scourge of the Chesapeake Bay’s oysters.
The Maryland Department of Natural Resources last month notified fishing groups that it was considering declaring the cownose ray a species “in need of conservation” and setting some first-ever harvest limits to protect them. And late last week, the DNR called — quietly — for public comment on whether to place a limited ban on the controversial staging of bowfishing tournaments to slaughter the rays.
“We are beginning to secure public comments on this regulation and hope to move on this accordingly,” DNR senior communications manager Anna Lucente-Hoffmann said Monday.
(UPDATE: The comment period, originally open only until Thursday night, has been extended until Sunday, Nov. 13 at 11:59 p.m.. Comments can be submitted online here: dnr.maryland.gov/fisheries/Pages/regulations/changes.aspx#cownose)
Those moves represent a reversal for Maryland fisheries regulators. They had previously claimed they had neither the power nor information to warrant curbing the tournaments, which animal-rights advocates have criticized as inhumane and a threat to the species’ survival.
The rays — brown, with long, whip-like tails — swim into the Chesapeake from the Atlantic Ocean every year around May or June to mate and give birth. But their influx has stirred a furor, as Bay watermen and oyster farmers contend the creatures are threatening their livelihoods. Cownose rays eat clams and oysters, and an oft-cited 2007 study in the prestigious journal Science said the Atlantic ray population had ballooned because of declines in sharks, their chief predators. In the Bay, hordes of rays were blamed for depleting Bay oysters.
Even before that study, Maryland and Virginia maintained an open season on cownose rays, with no limits on when, where or how many could be caught. Virginia has also promoted them to chefs and consumers as a new seafood, though it’s hard to cook the urine flavor out of the flesh. The majority of cownose rays caught are simply killed and thrown away. And bowfishing enthusiasts have gotten into the act by organizing cownose ray tournaments to purge the Bay of a species they’ve been led to believe is a pest.
But biologists have grown concerned about the impacts of such unlimited carnage, noting that rays produce one pup a year and are slow to mature.
And in the spring of 2015, animal rights groups began filming the tournaments to publicize the slaughter of rays, attracting local television coverage. The groups also began to pressure the governors of both states to stop the tournaments.
Advocates for protecting rays gained support earlier this year, when a new study contradicted the 2007 one and found they are not to blame for declines in oyster populations.
But even after that, a DNR spokesman said the department had no grounds for action.
"We do not have authority to manage contests or tournaments, and there is insufficient data for the development of a management plan,” Stephen Schatz, the DNR communications director, said in June. At least one tournament went on last summer, though another was canceled.
Animal-rights groups such as SHARK and Fish Feel have been keeping the issue alive on social media. And on Oct. 18, the DNR notified its sport and tidal fisheries advisory commissions that it would be looking at developing a regulation to declare cownose rays “in need of conservation.”
That, the DNR memo said, would let the state put up “reasonable guardrails” to protect the species.
Last week, the department posted on its website that it is considering prohibiting the use of archery equipment to catch cownose rays from July 1 to Dec. 31. These dates, the DNR release said, would protect pregnant females and their pups.
But the tournaments start as early as May, and conservation groups are concerned the guardrails are not protective enough.
The department is only taking comments until 11:59 p.m. Thursday, Nov. 10. A DNR spokeswoman could not explain why the request for comments had not been publicized more widely with a press release. (UPDATE: As noted earlier, the comment period has been extended until 11:59 p.m. Sunday, Nov. 13. ) Comments can be submitted to firstname.lastname@example.org or by clicking on the link found here.
Virginia is not taking up any cownose regulation now, but will be watching with interest what Maryland does, said Laurie Naismith, spokeswoman for the Virginia Marine Resources Commission.
But Marylanders, at least until late Thursday, can cast their votes on cownose ray protections.