The cownose ray may be about to get a reprieve.
The Maryland Department of Natural Resources is considering declaring the kite-shaped marine creature a species “in need of conservation” and setting some first-ever harvest limits to protect them.
The agency last month called for public comment — though with only limited notice — on whether to place a limited ban on bowfishing tournaments that take place each spring and summer in the Chesapeake Bay targeting the rays, many of which are pregnant at the time.
The regulation the DNR said it is considering calls for banning the tournaments between July and December. Many of the tournaments occur in May and June, when the rays first return to the Chesapeake. The DNR’s proposal stated that the males leave in early July; hence, the July ban would protect the females.
The tournaments and the lack of a plan in Maryland and Virginia for the rays’ conservation generated controversy last year, when animal-rights groups filmed the contests, drawing coverage on local television stations and the Internet.
Despite the public interest in the rays’ welfare, the state held an unusually short comment period in November of just four days, later extended to seven. The comment week included Election Day, Veterans Day and a weekend. It closed Nov. 13.
Comment periods are typically 30 days for local, state and federal regulatory matters.
DNR Fisheries Director Dave Blazer said he was not sure how his staff would proceed, or how soon.
“I think it will depend on what the comments are,” he said. “In a normal process, we would just go straight into regulatory proposal. But we want to kind of look at the comments we get back, so I wouldn’t want to commit to saying absolutely right away.”
Blazer disputed complaints from animal-rights groups and recreational fishermen that the DNR hadn’t tried that hard to get public comment.
“We put it out on Facebook,” he said. When pressed about what other measures the department took to get public sentiment, he said, “I didn’t get into that minutiae.”
Blazer agreed when asked by a Bay Journal reporter to provide a rundown of the comments that the DNR had received on the issue. But Stephen Schatz, the department’s communications director, later refused to disclose how many comments the department received or share their contents unless the Bay Journal filed a Maryland Public Information Act request and paid a fee. A DNR public information officer later disclosed that the agency received more than 200 comments, but had not reviewed them to determine how many were in favor or against a ban.
Maryland previously had resisted putting any restrictions on the harvest of cownose rays. Until now, fisheries regulators have said they lacked the legal authority or information to warrant curbing the tournaments. Virginia has not taken any action, either; a spokeswoman for the state’s marine resources commission said it is waiting to see what Maryland does.
The rays — brown-colored 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. The study suggested that hordes of rays were 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, 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. 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 generally produce one pup a year and are slow to mature.
Cownose ray advocates also gained support earlier this year, when a new study contradicted the 2007 finding and concluded the rays are not to blame for declines in oyster populations.
At least one tournament went on last summer, though another was canceled.
Mary Finelli, the founder of the animal-rights group Fishfeel, called the tournaments “inhumane and ecologically reckless.” She said that, while she was pleased the state was taking action, the ban under consideration does not include the crucial spring months.
Del. Shane Robinson, a Montgomery County Democrat, said that he considered the ban the DNR is eyeing inadequate. He said he would reintroduce legislation he failed to get passed last year to ban the bowfishing tournaments outright. Robinson said he was also concerned that the DNR’s “extremely short” comment period left people out of an important issue.
“If we exterminate the rays,” he said, “what happens to the rest of the food chain?”
But watermen and bow hunters see rays as menaces to crabs, grasses and oysters.
“All we’re doing is trying to clean the waters. When the rays come in, they ruin the ecosystem,” said Kurt Wall, owner of American Bowhunters in Pleasantville, NY, which has run tournaments in Maryland.
Whatever the department decides regarding the tournaments, fishery regulators need to know how many rays can be taken without depleting the population, said Kenneth Lewis, a longtime recreational fishing advocate who has served on many DNR advisory boards.
“If you’re going to kill these animals, there ought to be a science-based fisheries management plan, and it’s hard to argue against that,” he said. “It’s a well-recognized way of dealing with species.”