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

MD House passes cownose ray fishing contest moratorium

Differences with Senate version need to be resolved to send to governor

  • March 15, 2017
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)

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.)

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About Rona Kobell

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

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Aaron on March 16, 2017:

So does this make it illegal to catch Ray's from the shore on basic fishing tackle I.e rod reel tackle and bait??

Mary Finelli on March 18, 2017:

Aaron, the legislation only addresses fishing contests. As noted in the article, many fishermen are opposed to them. The Izaak Walton League, which was founded to promote fishing, has published an article condemning these brutal and ecologically reckless contests, and high profile members of the fishing community have testified against them. There is nothing whatsoever sporting about these contests. Teams of bowfishers ride their boats right up to the rays, who glide along the water's surface, shoot them with arrows, impale them with a metal gaff, mercilessly beat them with metal bats, and suffocate them. Afterwards the rays are dumped back into the water or tossed into dumpsters. Cownose rays have one of the lowest rates of reproduction of all fish species, making their population extremely vulnerable to predation. Nearly 223,000 people have signed a petition demanding an end to the contests, and many are contacting the Maryland Office of Tourism to voice their outrage about them. Such blatant animal abuse is an ugly mar on Maryland's image, and the state should act to give the rays meaningful and effective legal protection. More information, along with ways that people can take action to help the rays, is at Fish Feel dot org.

Sreve on July 11, 2017:

I would hardly call the Isaak Walton league a representative of the fishing community. Google Green decoys. Mike Leahy, Isaak Walton League’s conservation director, is a former regional director for Defenders of Wildlife, which has received, millions from the Doris Duke Charitable Foundation and the Turner Foundation, and hundreds of thousands from George Soros’ Foundation to Promote Open Society, the Hewlett Foundation, and the Tides Foundation. Leahy campaigned against wolf hunting while at Defenders of Wildlife.

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