Maryland is getting closer to at least a temporary moratorium on the killing of cownose rays in bowfishing contests, a summer pastime that has angered animal-rights groups and as well as many fishermen.
By a vote of 119 to 21, Maryland’s House of Delegates passed HB 211 Wednesday, which would impose a moratorium on such contests until July 1, 2019, and require the Maryland Department of Natural Resources to prepare a fisheries management plan by Dec. 31, 2018.
The House action comes a month after the state Senate voted, 46-0, to pass SB 268, which would bar bowfishing contests for rays through July 1, 2018, and require the DNR to develop its management plan a year earlier than called for under the House bill.
The two chambers must resolve differences in their bills over the remaining three weeks of the legislative session. Mary Finelli of Fish Feel, who chairs the Save the Rays Coalition, said advocates are confident a compromise can be reached, though she personally prefers the House version.
"The Coalition fully supports the moratorium on these cruel and wasteful contests while more research is conducted,” she said.
Cownose rays have been a contentious issue in Maryland for the last two years. Watermen have long blamed the creatures for the decline in oysters and crabs in the Chesapeake Bay and called the rays pests. A 2007 study in the journal Science seemed to confirm that, prompting Virginia seafood officials to promote their consumption with a slogan, “Save the Bay, Eat a Ray.” A subsequent study debunked the earlier finding.
The rays enter the Chesapeake Bay in late spring, where they typically give birth to one pup a year. It takes a ray seven years to mature, and researchers warn that if they are overfished, they will not bounce back quickly.
Though since refuted, the 2007 Science study encouraged commercial bowfishing for rays as well as recreational tournaments. None of that drew much attention until the summer of 2015, when animal-rights groups videotaped the contests and TV news stations showed graphic footage of bowfishermen shoving ray pups back into their dead mothers’ bellies so their catch would weigh more and help them win. That sparked a campaign by animal-rights advocates to ban the tournaments.
Maryland DNR officials asked for public comment on a management plan for rays in November. After initially suggesting the species might be declared “in need of conservation,” DNR officials narrowed the scope of regulations under consideration, with limitations on fishing gear and season among possible actions. The DNR indicated it was eyeing a ban on bowfishing for rays in the last six months of each year, to protect pregnant females and pups. Del. Shane Robinson, a Montgomery County Democrat, introduced the House bill because he didn’t think the state’s plans went far enough, particularly because the biggest tournaments happen in June.
(This post originally misstated the bowfishing restrictions that the DNR was considering, and the timing of the biggest ray bowfishing tournaments. The Bay Journal regrets the errors.)