MD bow-fishing tournament for cownose rays renews controversy

Cownose rays enter the Chesapeake Bay in spring to mate and give birth. They feed on oysters, among other things, but recent studies have disputed their impact on the shellfish population. 

A New York-based hunting group is forging ahead this weekend with a bow-hunting tournament on the Chesapeake Bay for cownose rays, despite a public outcry over similar events.

American Bowhunters, based in Pleasantville, vowed to keep their tournament scheduled for 6 a.m. Sunday at the Solomons boat ramp in Calvert County. Two other tournaments scheduled for this summer - one in Virginia, and another one called Battle of the Rays on the Patuxent in Maryland - were canceled.

Kurt Wall, co-founder of the group, told supporters on his Facebook page that the hunters were doing nothing wrong. Bowfishing for rays is not illegal in Maryland, which currently has no limit on how many rays a person can catch, nor any management plan for the species.

“These fish come in by the hundreds of thousands. They’re invasive…they get the crabs, the mussels, the oysters and they devastate the grass beds. Every waterman we see, they’re thanking us,” Wall said in an interview with the Bay Journal. “All we’re doing is culling them out. If we were hurting them, and there were evidence of that, we would be the first people who would stop.”

Animal rights groups counter that the tournaments are inhumane.  Last year, the groups Fish Feel and SHARK (Showing Animals Respect and Kindness) teamed up to film a couple ray bow-fishing tournaments. They captured footage of rays being shot, clubbed with baseball bats and their bloody remains put in dumpsters. In the film, one ray gave birth during the slaughter, and the bowfishermen pushed the pup back inside the dead mother so the weight would be higher for tournament scoring. In another case, the fisherman tried to count the baby by tying it to its dead parent with a string.

“It’s abusive, egregious animal abuse. It’s threatening a species. There is nothing right about it,” said Mary Finelli of Fish Feel, who witnessed the tournament last year. “It’s just an excuse for a blood fest.”

Rays have long been a bane of oyster farmers, clam harvesters and crabbers, who have accused the creatures of eating their way through the Chesapeake’s shellfish.

Maryland Department of Natural Resources spokesman Stephen Schatz said the department is aware of the contest this weekend, but plans no action.

"We do not have authority to manage contests or tournaments and there is insufficient data for the development of a management plan,” he said. 

The Maryland Natural Resources Police had already planned to increase patrols on the water this weekend as part of Operation Drywater, which makes sure boaters are sober while on the water. NRP spokeswoman Candy Thomson said the officers are aware of the event. They will have jurisdiction over anything that occurs on the water, she said, while the Calvert County Sheriffs Department will enforce the law on the land.

Finelli said there was not much tension at last year’s Battle of the Rays, because the bowfishermen did not know why animal-rights groups were filming. But at the American Bowhunters event later in the summer at Hallowing Point in nearby Prince Frederick, she said, tensions ran high.

Ray-hunting tournaments have gone on in the Bay for two decades, though mostly without controversy until recently. Virginia seafood officials encouraged a ray harvest and tried without success for years to market them as an edible product. Ray meat is difficult to cook and has a urine taste, though a skilled chef can mask it.

Their cause was boosted in 2007, when a study in the journal Science found that the overfishing of large sharks had led to an explosion in the population of rays, which in turn had devoured oysters, clams and scallops along the East Coast. Some charter boat captains added bowfishing to their offerings, and many hunters, like Wall, considered removing the rays a service to the ecosystem.

After reading about the ray tournaments in an online news outlet, Finelli rallied other animal rights activists to film the next one. Their video got broadcast on local TV news stations in the Chesapeake region, and posted online. A pair of Maryland teen-agers launched a petition drive to stop the tournaments, which so far has 137,000 signatures.

The ensuing publicity led the Bay Program's Sustainable Fisheries Goal Implementation Team to convene a workshop with leading ray researchers and determine what, if anything, fisheries managers needed to do to protect a species they knew little about. Last October, the team released its report, which included the following findings:

• Cownose rays are not invasive. They are a highly migratory species that enters the Chesapeake once a year, around May and June, to mate and give birth.

• Nearly all the rays in the Chesapeake after July are females.

• They are slow to mature and not particularly fecund, with one live birth a year, on average.

• Scientists need to conduct more research on the life cycle of rays.

• Ray management should be coordinated along the whole East Coast.

Earlier this year, Florida State University’s Dean Grubbs, who attended the Bay Program meeting, published his own report on rays. It contradicted the 2007 study, the methodology of which had always troubled Grubbs.

Grubbs and his co-authors concluded that the Science paper over-stated both the decline in big sharks and the ability of cownose rays to reproduce quickly enough to devastate shellfish populations. Furthermore, Grubbs said, oysters had declined long before, victims of disease, over-harvesting, over-sedimentation and habitat loss.

“Cownose rays have been used as a convenient scapegoat, and while they may negatively affect some efforts to restore harvestable shellfish stocks, they were not the cause of the collapse of shellfish fisheries, as the 2007 study claimed,” Grubbs told the Bay Journal when the study came out.

Grubbs said he hoped that his paper would lead to regulations protecting the rays before it’s too late; the Brazilian cownose ray, he said, is now critically endangered because of unregulated fisheries.

Grubbs’ work followed a study by Robert Fisher, of the Virginia Institute of Marine Science, which examined the contents of rays’ stomachs and found that while they eat oysters, the shellfish are not their primary source of food. Fisher is continuing to work with Smithsonian Environmental Research Center’s Matt Ogburn to track rays’ migration along the coast and in the Chesapeake.

Wall said he’s not swayed by the research. Indeed, many watermen and oyster farmers swear they’ve seen firsthand that rays are responsible for depleting the shellfish, even though oyster harvests have increased significantly since the historic lows of the early-2000s.

In one oft-cited example, the U.S. Army Corps of Engineers said in 2006 that rays had quickly devoured 750,000 juvenile oysters it had planted at Stingray Point on the Piankatank River. Army officials said they were surprised rays could be so voracious, though locals had predicted it.

Wall said that while clubbing rays may look brutal, it’s actually the most humane way to kill them. As for the reports of bowfishers putting babies back into their dead mothers, he said: “Some of them do have babies when we get them. There’s nothing we can do about it… if they fall out, they fall out.”

Finelli and others have pointed to the wastefulness of bowfishing for rays. Her group documented the dead ones piled in trash receptacles. But Wall said his quarry goes to a farmer who uses them for fertilizer. The fishermen also eat some, Wall said, saying that filleted wings can produce a tasty dish he calls “the poor man’s scallops.”

Wall said he understands the position of animal-rights groups and he wishes they would understand his group’s conservation ethos.

“Do I feel bad? I don’t feel bad," Wall said, "because I’m doing something good.”

(CORRECTION: The original post misidentified the originators of a petition to stop ray bow-fishing tournaments. Bay Journal regrets the error.)

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