This article, by Fish Feel’s founder, Mary Finelli, will appear in the Summer 2017 issue of Pathways Magazine.
Every spring, graceful cownose rays travel from Florida to the Chesapeake Bay to mate and give birth to their pups. These beloved animals are native to the Bay, and are integral members of the ecosystem. They have co-existed with other Bay inhabitants since long before Captain John Smith first scouted the area, in 1608. Despite this, and as scientists have reported, the rays are being scapegoated for crashes in shellfish populations that, in actuality, are caused by excessive human consumption of them, pollution, disease, and habitat destruction.
Cownose rays have one of the lowest reproduction rates of all fish species. They mate only after having reached 6-8 years of age, and mature females have but a single pup each year. This makes their species extremely vulnerable to overfishing. In spite of this, these sensitive animals are popular targets for bowfishers. Gliding along the surface, they make easy targets. Cownose ray bowfishing contests are increasingly popular, with pregnant females often the main prey since the largest, heaviest rays are sought for prize money.
A faulty scientific paper published in 2007 theorized that, due to shark populations decreasing, cownose ray populations were increasing and detrimentally impacting shellfish populations. Although scientists expressed skepticism of the theory, and concern for the ray population, the state of Virginia started the “Save the Bay, Eat a Ray” campaign, spending tens of thousands of dollars to try to market ray meat in the U.S., Europe and Asia. (Said to have a urine flavor, the marketing effort has, fortunately, been a bust.) In 2010, the American Elasmobranch Society passed a resolution urging “Atlantic states where cownose rays are being landed, particularly Virginia and Maryland, to immediately impose precautionary cownose ray catch limits and initiate development of a population assessment and science-based interstate management plan, as a matter of priority.”
Learning of these cruel and ecologically reckless contests, from a TakePart article by Erica Gies, our organization, Fish Feel, contacted SHARK (Showing Animals Kindness and Respect) for their assistance in documenting them. In June of 2015, the week before the year’s first contest, Howard Edelstein, a Fish Feel volunteer, and I rented a pontoon boat and practiced piloting it. We rented it again the day of the contest, and teamed up with SHARK to witness and document the carnage.
Riding their boats right up to the rays, the bowfishers delighted in shooting them with arrows, gaffing them with metal hooks, hauling them from the water, mercilessly beating them, and then throwing them into a barrel to suffocate. At the contest’s weigh station it was noted how baby rays are stuffed back into their dead mother, mother rays are zip-tied shut to keep them from giving birth, and a contestant was filmed tying a baby ray to his dead mother, all in order to increase the weight. Afterwards, barrels of dead rays were dumped back into the water.
From the appalling images they’d captured, SHARK created a heart-wrenching video of the savage brutality. We held a joint press conference, and the media broadcasted the disturbing news to an outraged public. Two Maryland teens, Charli Holland and Deja Davis, initiated a petition against the contests on the Care2 site, which now has garnered over 223,000 signatures.
Soon after, Fish Feel activists traveled to Virginia to document another contest, where rays were being thrown into a dumpster. The participants were so hostile toward our presence there that a reporter requested a police escort after she was assaulted while trying to leave. Howard and I later went to another contest, which was held at a public boat ramp in Maryland. Again we were met with open aggression. A park ranger there demanded that we stop filming. When we asserted our rights by continuing to document the contest, a sheriff accompanied by several officers arrived and ordered us to leave or be arrested. Bowfishing proponents responded to our social media posts about the contests with threats and obscenities.
An informal coalition of animal protection organizations quickly formed, and we addressed our concerns at a meeting of the state’s Sport Fisheries Advisory Commission. Since they did not have the authority to act on the contests, it was suggested that we take our concerns to the state legislature. The public outcry that followed the media reports prompted federal and Bay states’ officials to convene a scientific workshop about the rays, at the National Aquarium in Baltimore. The resulting report largely exonerated the rays, and a much more extensive scientific paper, which was published soon after, debunked the faulty previous research and explained that the rays are being scapegoated.
Attempting to avoid more bad press (which included an article condemning the contests in the pro-fishing Izaak Walton League’s magazine) and the public backlash it created against the contests, the organizers began to operate more covertly. In June of 2016, we revisited the site of the first contest, the ironically named “Battle of the Rays,” and were relieved to find it not being held. The Virginia contest had also been called off for that year. Learning that American Bowhunters’ “Big 5 Stingray Tournament” was to be staged at a public boat ramp, SHARK’s Stu Chaifetz contacted the authorities and had it disallowed there. An effort to stage it from a firehouse was similarly quashed by Stu. The day of the contest, Fish Feel again rented a boat and SHARK brought their newly acquired one, along with their drones, and we again teamed up to document the onslaught. SHARK’s subsequent video compilation resulted in graphic international media coverage.
That August, the Maryland Department of Natural Resources (DNR) proposed a regulatory change to limit the use of projectile gear to catch cownose rays. However, the effective date would only begin in July, and run through the end of the year. Bowfishing for rays can occur any time after they arrive in May, and the contests have been taking place in June. Surviving female rays and their young remain in the Bay until September. Many people have submitted comments to the DNR urging that that the effective date be moved to the beginning of May.
Howard and I had been meeting with legislators, and we were delighted when Representative Shane Robinson (D-39) enthusiastically agreed to introduce legislation to ban the contests. Senator Ron Young (D-3) followed with a companion bill. The Town Creek Foundation provided Fish Feel with a grant to hire The Hatcher Group, an Annapolis-based communications firm, to help facilitate the ray campaign. The Save the Rays Coalition was formed, consisting of the Animal Legal Defense Fund, the Center for Biological Diversity, Fish Feel, For All Animals, Last Chance for Animals, Maryland Votes for Animals, Midshore Riverkeeper Conservancy, Sea Shepherd, and SHARK. Also campaigning for the rays are Shark Advocates International and The Humane Society of the United States.
The Prohibition on Cownose Ray Fishing Contests bills (HB 211 and SB 268) were introduced in the Maryland General Assembly in January 2017. Fortified with scientific evidence in support of the rays, and a brief but impactful video of the contest cruelties, a wide range of individuals submitted testimony in favor of the Senate bill. A representative of the Waterman’s Association and a paid lobbyist were the only two people who spoke against it. However, in order to garner adequate political support for the bills, they were amended to a moratorium on the contests until July 1, 2019, and call on the DNR to develop a management plan for cownose rays by the end of 2018. The bowfishers showed up en masse in February for the House bill hearing and, dismissing the scientific evidence, insisted the rays are overpopulated and to blame for shellfish decreases. The Senate bill ultimately passed with a vote of 44 to 2, and the House bill passed by 119 to 21. On May 4th, Governor Hogan signed the bills into law!
The rays’ fate now largely remains in the hands of the DNR. We are hopeful that its plan will call for a permanent ban on the contests, and that the proposed rule change restricting the use of projectile gear to catch cownose rays will be changed to go into effect in March of every year, essentially ending “recreational” bowfishing of the rays in Maryland waters. We will continue urging the DNR to institute these sensible actions, and we ask you to join us in doing so.
It is so heartening how people across the country, and many beyond, have taken the rays’ plight to heart and rallied to their defense. Their actions on behalf of the rays are most sincerely appreciated. Science has shown that fishes are sentient; they suffer fear and pain. These sensitive, perceptive beings deserve our respect and compassion, not cruel and senseless abuse. Thank you for your interest and concern, and for your appreciation of the Chesapeake Bay and its resident wildlife. Please visit the Save the Rays Coalition website to sign up for updates on the campaign: http://savetheraysmd.org. More information about the issue can be found at: http://fishfeel.org/stop-savage-killing-contests. Let’s give these innocent, admirable animals the protection they deserve and so desperately need.