Bloody tournament video intensifies calls to manage cownose rays

Cownose rays often swim in groups. They flap their wings in unison, which in turn stirs up sediment and exposes their prey buried there. 

The cownose ray is majestic, a hawk of the sea. Approaching a school of the kite-shaped creatures through clear waters is a thrill for divers and boaters every spring, when the rays return to the Chesapeake’s shallows. They glide along, wings slicing through the waters, with a grace that belies their heavy bodies.

But watermen say the cownose rays chomp on the oysters, soft clams, razor clams and menhaden that make up some of the last fisheries. Oyster farmers complain they devour the spat-on-shell crops and force farms to invest in expensive cage gear. They can destroy grass beds that shelter crabs. They can also injure fishermen with the spikes at the base of their tails.

Neither Maryland nor Virginia has a management plan for the rays or a limit on how many anglers can catch. So, for the last two decades, sportsmen have been organizing bowfishing tournaments, where amid a festive atmosphere, they shoot hundreds of rays. For the most part, participants do not eat the meat, which can be tough to prepare and digest. Instead, they dump the dead rays back in the Bay, turn the rays into fertilizer for crops ashore, or offer them as crab bait to local watermen.

Virginia’s Marine Products Board has endorsed the creation of a fishery for rays and promoted the “veal of the Chesapeake” to local distributors. Maryland officials neither encourage nor discourage bowfishing for rays. Outside of bowfishing enthusiasts, not many people knew about the contests.

That changed this spring, when animal rights groups filmed a bowfishing tournament on the Patuxent River. The video showed men shooting rays at close range, then beating them with baseball bats and suffocating them in cold water. Many of these rays were pregnant, and their babies were clinging to life as the men massacred their mothers. Sexually mature rays give birth once a year at most, making the bloodletting all the more disturbing.

The groups, Fish Feel and SHARK, said they would lobby the governor to stop the bowfishing tournaments. Local news channels carried footage of the ray slaughter, along with multiple warnings that the footage viewers were about to watch was disturbing. The animal rights groups also said they would lobby federal and state agencies to develop a management plan for the animals.

But Robbie Bowe, the owner of an outdoors shop in Woodbridge, VA, who organized the tournaments in Southern Maryland for 18 years, said the men did nothing wrong.

“It was a profitable tournament and fun to be had by all. It was a great thing for the sportsmen,” he said.

Bowe began his tournaments on Broomes Island in Calvert County nearly 20 years ago with just six or seven hunters. By 2014, his last year running the event, he said 150 hunters in 50 boats participated. Through sponsors, the tournament gave away hundreds of dollars in gifts, made money for Maryland through license fees and helped bring business to the Sea Breeze Restaurant in Mechanicsville, which hosted the event.

“We were never, ever approached by DNR,” Bowe said. “And then, all of a sudden, you got a bunch of grumpy people from California” complaining about animal cruelty.

The complaints began after an article ran on Take Part, a website that features original reporting on social issues, then encourages readers to take action. Readers did, and Bowe said he was so beleaguered he decided not to run the tournament in 2015 (another outfitter ran it).

But the issue of how to manage the rays has been percolating for several years. In 2010, the National Oceanic and Atmospheric Administration commissioned Robert Fisher of the Virginia Institute of Marine Science to study the cownose ray, determine where it migrates, what it eats, how it reproduces and whether the states should develop a fishery for it. The resulting paper, Life history, trophic ecology, & prey handling by cownose ray, Rhinoptera bonasus, from Chesapeake Bay, remains the definitive study on cownose rays in the Chesapeake.

Work is continuing, with Fisher at VIMS tagging rays in Virginia and Matt Ogburn of the Smithsonian Environmental Research Center looking for the animals in the Maryland portion of the Chesapeake.

So far, Ogburn said the team has tagged about 35 rays, almost all female.

Fisher’s work, which looked at 2,255 cownose rays sampled from May 2006 through September 2009, answered some basic questions. Rays come from Florida and arrive in the Chesapeake around May. Males leave in July, but females stick around until September or October. In a particularly warm year, they may be in the Bay in November. They usually give birth in June, typically producing a single “pup.” Female rays reach sexual maturity at about age 8; gestation is between 11 and 12 months.

“There is concern that if a larger scale fishery was developed, they could very quickly be overfished. Once overfished, they would be hard to get back because of slow reproduction,” Ogburn said. “There is growing interest in managing the species in some way, whether it is for a fishery or because it is perceived as a nuisance to aquaculture and other things. But we really have very little information on them.”

Fisher examined the stomachs of rays and found the remains of an oyster in only one of them. Rays mostly consumed soft-shell clams, Atlantic menhaden and other fish, according to Fisher’s work.

Ogburn said questions that remain include whether the same group of rays regularly return to the Chesapeake, if they come to the same part of the Bay, and what are the chances of their staying in one well-defined area. The animals are social creatures, so perhaps they travel together and stay that way. Fisher’s tags were only intended to stay on for six months, to let the scientists know where the rays went in the winter.

Laurie Naismith, spokeswoman for the Virginia Marine Resources Commission, said that Humane Society executives met with commission head John M. R. Bull after the video surfaced. The commission’s finfish advisory committee will be looking at the matter, Naismith said. She said the commission didn’t want to react to a “viral video” without doing its due diligence on a complicated issue, and wanted to learn more about both the role of rays in the ecosystem and the pressure from bowfishing. Naismith said the animal rights groups were “very appreciative” of the concern the commission is giving the issue.

Martin Gary, the executive director of the Potomac River Fisheries Commission, welcomes the push for more information. A former Maryland Department of Natural Resources fisheries biologist, Gary said he was pleased that the Chesapeake Bay Program’s Sustainable Fisheries Goal Implementation Team addressed the issue at a recent meeting shortly before the Patuxent bowfishing tournament. But Gary said the kerfuffle over the carnage didn’t surprise him; he’d been hearing about charter boat captains adding ray bowfishing to their repertoire for years, particularly as striped bass became harder to catch.

“It wasn’t a matter of if it was going to happen — it was when,” Gary said.

Despite the upsetting ray slaughter video, Gary is not saying such tournaments should be banned. But, he said, fisheries managers need to be able to account for how many rays are being killed, where they’re being killed, and what’s happening to them after they’re killed. Perhaps, he said, bowfishermen could be required to have a permit, or be required to report their catch. Such a system would likely prove unpopular with fishermen. But, Gary said, not doing it could mean the end of rays in the Chesapeake.

“There’s a big unknown there, and we should try to answer the question if we can,” he said. “If we’re really killing more of these animals than we think, we don’t really want to be doing that.”

Bay Journal editor Karl Blankenship contributed to this story.

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