Cownose rays look and act like stingrays, their kite-shaped bodies gliding along the bottom of the Chesapeake Bay, gobbling oysters and clams like seafood lovers at an all-you-can-eat buffet.
Once considered graceful visitors to the Bay, cownose rays have become such a problem for a struggling oyster industry that Virginia officials now want to turn the tables on the winged creatures and start eating them—in part to curb their numbers in state waters.
The Virginia Marine Products Board recently dispatched a trade mission to South Korea to determine whether Asian palates and wallets might support a new commercial fishery for rays harvested from the Bay.
To test local appetites, the state board gave away barbecued ray wings, labeled as “Chesapeake rays,” last summer at the Hampton Bay Days festival. The board is also assisting in a study at the Virginia Institute of Marine Science of possible markets and future uses of cownose rays and their fleshy body parts.
“I’m very excited about rays and this project,” said John Maxwell, a certified chef and culinary teacher at J. Sargeant Reynolds Community College in Richmond. Maxwell traveled to South Korea as part of the trade mission and prepared experimental ray dishes for guests at a Thanksgiving feast.
He said the reaction was fabulous. One of the most popular techniques, Maxwell said, was marinating wing-cut fillets in olive oil, wine vinegar, oregano and lime juice, then grilling them.
“It’s very easy to work with and has no fishy taste at all,” he said. “I refer to it as a sea-going meat. It’s really more like beef than fish” and contains little fat.
Scientists are not sure whether there has been in increase in cownose rays in the Bay; population counts have not been conducted. Shellfish growers, though, swear numbers are increasing, mostly because the rays’ two biggest predators—sharks and humans—are not around as much to snatch them from the Bay. Several shark species are in decline, and fewer anglers are deploying nets that typically strangle rays.
Nevertheless, the marine animals, each averaging 35 inches in diameter and weighing more than 25 pounds, certainly have become infamous nuisances of late.
They were blamed for wrecking the opening of a highly touted Army Corps of Engineers oyster-restoration project in the Great Wicomico River two summers ago. In June 2004, they ate about 1 million disease-resistant babies set on artificial oyster reefs in the river—a $78,000 frenzy that caused the Corps to spend another $500,000 last spring for protective fencing around the reefs.
Responding to more pleas for help from oyster and clam growers, the Virginia Marine Resources Commission in December discussed a request to establish a bounty system for cownose rays.
As envisioned, the state would pay anglers to kill rays, thus winnowing their populations and influence on shellfish beds.
Scientists and regulators opposed the idea. They said cownose rays are a migratory species that travels from Brazil to New England each year, stopping in the Bay in late spring and summer to give birth to pups. To hunt them in Virginia might have biological consequences that could reverberate for years and across two continents, the experts said.
In the end, the commission rejected a bounty program and endorsed additional efforts at starting a commercial fishery for rays.
“We need some kind of harvest strategy,” said Rob O’Reilly, assistant state director of saltwater fisheries. “We have industry, science and the state working together cooperatively on this, so we want to see how this works.”
Launching a new seafood industry is not so easy, though. For one, rays are especially difficult to handle. Their whiplike tails include sharp-edged barbs that can slice an angler’s hand or leg in a flash.
Plus, the relatively low price for a pound of processed cownose ray—about $1.99—has kept anglers from targeting them in the past, according to officials and previous studies.
In 1979, Virginia scientists published a report on rays and their effect on oysters after a devastating season in the Rappahannock River. The study recommended a commercial fishery be developed for rays, but one never took off.
The report also suggested a sports fishing derby with prizes for the largest rays, male and female, caught during the tournament. The report said Texas had success with such derbies and noted how anglers in California went on “extermination parties” for bat rays that plagued oyster grounds there.
For his study last year, Bob Fisher, a commercial fishing researcher at VIMS, obtained a special permit from the state to catch cownose rays at the mouth of the Bay and up to three miles offshore. He netted more than 20,000 pounds of rays, experimented with various processing techniques and supplied meat to different markets.
Fisher also wants to investigate the use of a ray’s liver oil as a health supplement, its cartilages for medicinal purposes and its carcass for fertilizer.
As a low-fat meat alternative, Fisher said, “people will eat it; they like it.” But, he added, “it’s the fishermen who don’t want to deal with this species. It’s dangerous, and, so far, there’s not a lot of money in it for them.”
This article, distributed by the Associated Press, originally ran in the Virginian-Pilot.