Bay Journal

Rona Kobell is a former writer for the Bay Journal and Baltimore Sun.

MD eyes curb on bowfishing for cownose rays

DNR seeks comment - quickly - on partial ban aimed at ray-killing contests

  • November 07, 2016
Cownose rays enter the Chesapeake Bay in spring to mate and give birth. They feed on oysters, among other things, but a recent study has downplayed their impact on the shellfish population.  (Dave Harp)

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:

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 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.

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About Rona Kobell

Rona Kobell is a former writer for the Bay Journal and Baltimore Sun.

Read more articles by Rona Kobell


By submitting a comment, you are consenting to these Rules of Conduct. Thank you for your civil participation. Please note: reader comments do not represent the position of Chesapeake Media Service.

Joey Hurley on November 07, 2016:

No restrictions.. I'm on the bay often they cause more damage than they do help.

Eric Zabiegalski on November 08, 2016:

Put a ban or limit on these creatures being hunted. These rays migrate from South America annually, are intelligent with an intellect similar to a dog or cat, are curious, friendly, social and I do not believe they are damaging oyster beds to the extent reported, I think their scavenging cleans the bay and directs other sea life movements that must be first understood before their numbers are severely reduced, they are also members of the shark family having a common ancestor called a "batoid" which existed 14 million years ago during the Jurassic period, they are escentially flattened sharks. Contact me or come to the Calvert Marine Museum on Solomon's Island to learn more, if like to help. Thank you.

Melanie crowder on November 08, 2016:

Do not hunt cow nosed rays

Brad Hazledine on November 08, 2016:

How is this even a thing? Can we not find something to do that doesn't involve slaughtering animals for fun?

Rebecca on November 08, 2016:


Bonnie Allen on November 08, 2016:

This cruel act should be banned.

LK on November 08, 2016:

Please ban this cruel practice.

Vivien Straume on November 09, 2016:

I am writing as a concerned and compassionate Maryland citizen to urge you to pass the proposed regulation to limit bowfishing for cow nose rays that changes the restriction period to May through October. Although, I think this kind of cruelty should be stopped altogether. Rays are native to the Chesapeake Bay and are necessary and integral to the Bay ecosystem. They have been mercilessly slaughtered and blamed for oyster population declines which in actuality are due to over collection for human consumption, pollution and disease. Scientists have said repeatedly the rays have been "scapegoats" for the oyster population decline and that they’re brutal slaughter is unnecessary and unjust. The rays come to the Bay to give birth to their pups and mate. They don't mate until later in life, and females only have a single pup each year. This makes their population is very vulnerable to predation. Bowfishing for rays is egregiously inhumane. Nearly 140,000 people have signed a petition against it. Cownose rays need and deserve effective legal protection. As a Maryland citizen, it was distressing to watch the hunt and think that this kind of cruelty was allowed by our Maryland legislators. We the people ask in the strongest of terms that you enact legislation to give them this protection. Sincerely,

patrick Considine on November 09, 2016:

Do not hunt cow nosed rays , don't people ever learn what happens when humans fool around with the Eco-System-just ask yourself why Lionfish as such a threat in the Atlantic..

Mary Finelli on November 09, 2016:

Thank you very much for continuing to report on this important issue. Some points to consider: Rays are native to the Chesapeake Bay, and they are integral to the Bay ecosystem. They have been blamed for oyster population declines which in actuality are due to overcollection for human consumption, pollution and disease. Scientists say the rays have been "scapegoats" for the oyster population decline. The rays come to the Bay to give birth to their pups and mate. They don't mate until later in life, and females only have a single pup each year. This makes their population is very vulnerable to predation. Bowfishing for rays is egregiously inhumane. Nearly 140,000 people have signed a petition against it. Cownose rays need and deserve effective legal protection, especially while the rays are in the Bay: from May through October.

Sharon Thomas on November 09, 2016:

Please put the ban in place. Such unnecessary cruelty. We are better than this.

Lee Ann Morrison on November 09, 2016:

Rays are beneficial and sentient creatures. Stop the senseless carnage lest we lose another species and harm thef bay from man's selfishness,greed, ignorance and need to kill for sport. This is as bad as Japan's dolphin slaughter. Horrific abuse and animal cruelty.

Sproutbliss on November 09, 2016:

Please stop torturing and killing these incredible creatures. It's not enough to regulate their suffering by limiting who can kill however many. We need to end this despicable slaughter full stop now. It's the only ethical option with the state of our oceans at nearly fully destroyed.

Nelly Chesnel on November 10, 2016:

Stop this barbaric hunt against clever and sociable animal !

Rona on November 10, 2016:

Hi everyone. Thank you for your comments. Be sure if you want them to count that you also follow the link and send them to DNR! We are the reporters who cover this, but we are not connected to the state!

DOUG W. on November 11, 2016:


JH on November 11, 2016:

First off, where is the data to suggest that the population is declining due to the harvest by bowfisherman or recreational fisherman? Can Anyone provide reputable numbers? Secondly Cownose rays do NOT only have one pup. This is wrong as i know first hand, i have personally watched them birth 2 pups many times. Next, not all fisherman that shoot or catch the rays waste them so for others to suggest that all sportsman hunting for them is outlandish. Lastly you have to ask yourself why exactly wasnt this made more public as the editor stated.

Jerry Denton on November 12, 2016:

Hunting the rays is necessary to southern Maryland they do destroy oysters, crabs, clams, and other shell fish in our waters.people are quick to say don't hunt them it's cruel but what about the wAter men. That's is there livelihoods. There are an invasive species that will consume thousands of shell fish from our waters, and if we can't keep the rays under control then we will lose money and the food we all love to eat.I find it funny people holler that is in inhumane to beet a Ray but it's ok to catch a fish throw it in a cooler and let it suffocate instead of putting it out of it's misery.

Dh on November 12, 2016:

If there is going to be a change in the law then put a limit not a ban 90% of the people commenting on this are literally copying and pasting the same information over and over which has no credibility or actual facts. If you Wana learn what the rays do when they are here and truly learn what's going in go talk to your local watermen, these guys depend on the harvest of crabs during the summer time and theffort rays eat and chase of crabs from trot lines and crab pot. I have been out personally quite a few times while people are fishing or professional watermen are crabbing and they ask if we have seen them or gotten them, and we are thanked over and over again for trying to help and control the population. The rays also have more then one pup in a year as well I have no idea where people got that idea from but it is simply not true. I only ask that we are not judged as a whole group because of a few bad apples that were caught on film dumping dead rays.

Crystal Heisler on November 12, 2016:

Ban this...before it is too late and yet another species is wiped out by us humans. The endless slaughter of non-human animals must be stopped.

John Rue on November 13, 2016:

Sure I agree that this species should not be exterminated. I'm sorry MD DNR will be involved with its long history of screwing up most enviromental things it touches.

Kristina on November 13, 2016:

Please protect these beautiful creatures from unnecessary suffering. There is no need to allow limitless slaughter.

Cynthia on November 13, 2016:

Crabs are necessary to the survival of rays. Crabs are not necessary to the survival of humans. Leave the rays alone!

Margaret Kearns on November 13, 2016:

Please ban this killing

Nancy Hey on November 13, 2016:

I want to see an end to fish-killing tournaments. Science shows that fish feel pain, and killing them senselessly like this with a slow painful death is very inhumane.

Holly Bern on November 14, 2016:

Total ban and strong enforcement needed immediately!

Joseph Corcoran on November 14, 2016:

I cannot imagine a person being so cruel to kill these rays for sport . I have had cownose rays take my bait when I was fishing for flounder . When I bring them on board the boat to extract the hook to release them they actually cry like a baby . They are real live intelligent beings . Be merciful . Joseph Corcoran , Machipongo VA

Joe Ciampa on November 16, 2016:

The stingrays are destroying fisheries others depend on to make a living. And are an invasive species.

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