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Sport Fishermen Target Cownose Rays In The Chesapeake Bay


Before we get into this next story, we need you to picture a cownose ray. It's sort of like a flattened shark, like a kite with a long tail. Each year, huge schools of cownose rays migrate from Florida to the Chesapeake Bay. They come to give birth and mate. When they arrive, they're hungry. That is big trouble for oyster farmers and their multimillion-dollar industry. Sport fishermen have begun to target the pregnant rays, and as Pamela D'Angelo reports, environmentalists are upset.

PAMELA D'ANGELO, BYLINE: At the Virginia Aquarium in Virginia Beach, one of the most popular exhibits is the touch tank. Cownose rays splash visitors and rise to the surface where lines of human hands await as they glide by.

The rays are on a special diet, but in the wild, they eat small clams and oysters. And out on the Chesapeake Bay, wild oysters and clams are disappearing.

Oyster farmers like Rich Harding are trying to bring the shellfish back. Today he's on Virginia's Little Wicomico River using a rake-like dredge to scoop oysters onto his boat.

RICH HARDING: Last year I was dredging it in May and June, when the rays are predominantly thick in here where they follow the dredge around, up to 10 behind the drudge and diving and getting my oysters. If I saw 10, God knows how many actually were here under the bottom.

D'ANGELO: The shellfish are disappearing because of over-harvesting, pollution and disease. And rays are also complicating efforts to bring them back. They have big grinding plates in the back of their throat that allow them to take an oyster, grind it up then spit out the broken shell.

Bob Fisher, with the Virginia Institute of Marine Science, says dredging leaves behind smaller oysters rays can eat.

BOB FISHER: And of course the right size oyster put out when the rays are in active feeding mode, you're ringing the dinner bell.

D'ANGELO: For the past six years, Virginia's Marine Products Board tried to get consumers interested in helping. They developed an advertising campaign called Save the Bay, Eat a Ray. Restaurant owners like Tommy Clark said customers tried the rays but they weren't popular.

TOMMY CLARK: They had a texture to it that just was not desirable - kind of a soft, roast beefy, potted meat cross. We tried clam strips. We tried it like calamari. We just couldn't find something that was customer-friendly.

D'ANGELO: Clark, who also raises oysters and clams, says cownose rays have always pestered watermen.

CLARK: I've heard the old-timers talk - back in the '30s, '40s and '50s that out in Tom's Cove they used to actually drop sticks of dynamite - boom - and just kill the cownose rays.

D'ANGELO: The push to control rays has resurrected another Chesapeake Bay pastime, bow fishing. People use a bow and arrow to shoot from a boat. The sport here has gone extreme, with dozens of rays killed, lined up on a beach where they're left after a couple of poses for a social media post.

Mary Finelli, an animal-rights activist, is documenting tournaments around the bay.

MARY FINELLI: This is just thrill-killing. These people are not here out of concern for the bay, or they're here with really misguided concerns. It's really vicious killing of these animals that are beautiful, graceful, gentle animals. There's no valid justification for this massacre.

D'ANGELO: Rays don't reach sexual maturity until age 8 and take about 11 months to produce a single pup. Marine scientist Bob Fisher is worried about what's happening.

FISHER: It would be disastrous if the cownose ray was no longer a part of our ecosystem. Everything has its place.

D'ANGELO: State and federal scientists plan to meet with environmentalists later this year. They'll look at ways to best manage cownose rays in the Chesapeake Bay, including establishing a fishery or just leaving them alone. For NPR News, I'm Pamela D'Angelo in Reedville, Va. Transcript provided by NPR, Copyright NPR.

Pamela D'Angelo
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