It is a fact that each spring, usually a few weeks before Memorial Day, the first schools of mature cownose rays migrate into the Chesapeake Bay. These winged fish return to welp their pups and to mate. And it is also true that the debate about their role in the Bay ecology is reignited. That’s especially true in recent years between animal welfare groups and those who enjoy bowfishing tournaments, which seem to be rising in popularity.
Researchers do know that females give birth to one pup in June or July, with mating occurring soon thereafter. Scientists believe the males, after having fulfilled their part of the biological bargain, leave the Bay for offshore waters. Yet, ray experts say there remain gaps in the understanding about ray ecology. For example, one recent study, led by Dean Grubbs of Florida State University’s Coastal and Marine Laboratory, challenges the long-held belief that rays have decimated native oyster populations.
Others use advanced tools to learn more. Ray expert Matt Ogburn, along with his colleagues at the Smithsonian Environmental Research Center, is working with researchers from the Virginia Institute of Marine Sciences to tag rays with satellite transponders to help fill those knowledge gaps.
Last fall, they and other of the country’s leading cownose ray scientists took part in a workshop after which they compiled a report, released this past January, containing their questions and recommendations. One thing cited in the report was that while the slogan “Save the Bay, Eat a Ray” may be catchy, it has likely only fostered inaccurate myths about cownose rays and their impacts on the Bay’s shellfish population. Scientists say rays do eat oysters and clams, but at what rate remains unknown, as does the population of the Chesapeake’s stock of cownose rays.
For several years Virginia seafood marketers tried to find a market for ray meat, both in the states and abroad. According to the work group’s report, “Cownose ray products are not profitable at this time, and there is no market to support a fishery.” Moreover, scientists raise the possibility that cownose rays may be more susceptible to overfishing than large coastal shark species. Recent scientific evidence also suggests that the perception that ray numbers have exploded is unsupported by the fact that rays have a very low reproductive rate: one pup per female.
This brings us to the apparently growing popularity of bowfishing and tournaments and the debate surrounding it, which on occasion has escalated to vitriolic levels. Just prior to PropTalk going to print, animal protection groups—calling the bowfishing events “vicious and ecologically reckless”—called on the Maryland Department of Natural Resources to stop these types of tournaments. One was scheduled for the Patuxent River area in late June. Local government officials denied tournament organizers permission to use their facility without the okay from the DNR.
Cownose rays are a migratory species and as such fall under the management purview of the Atlantic States Marine Fisheries Commission, not Maryland’s DNR. While the agency has stated its objective to manage the biological sustainability of the resource, the agency cannot set limits on cownose rays or require ray tournament organizers to register their events without a fishery management plan. The ray work group, however, suggested this could be done on a voluntary basis as part of a pilot program to glean more information. No word from DNR if they’ve moved on that initiative.
Animal rights groups and others have suggested DNR should declare cownose rays a species “In Need of Conservation;” a regulatory action. It would require more information about population status and how fishing effort impacts population levels. Maryland could also restrict the recreational gear (e.g. put a set creel limit on bowfishing), but how effective this would be in solving a biological problem is unknown since it is also unknown how many animals are killed by recreational and commercial fishing gears.
Research in the field of psychological sciences tells us that once a person (or group) has formed an opinion on a subject, especially one that has an emotionally charged component, it can be challenging to get that person (or group) to change his or her opinion or behavior. That could be true of anyone who has considered rays a threat in the past, or believes they are in dire need of protection when they may not be. Until the science catches up, the debate seems likely to continue.