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Legislation proposes banning cownose ray hunting tournaments

Amanda Yeager
Contact Reporterayeager@capgaznews.com

Groups advocating against the competitive killing of cownose rays in the Chesapeake Bay are asking state legislators to end the practice.

Animal rights organizations, including the Humane Society, Animal Welfare Institute and the Save the Rays coalition, on Tuesday testified in favor of Senate Bill 268, which would ban cownose ray fishing tournaments in state waters.

The tournaments first attracted public attention in 2015 after advocates released graphic video of a bowfishing contest in which fishermen shot rays with arrows, hit them with clubs and weighed them before dumping them back into the water.

"These events are inhumane, wasteful and ecologically destructive," Kathryn Kullberg, director of marine and wildlife protection for the Humane Society, told the Senate's Education, Health and Environmental Matters committee. "This is not something that Maryland should be known for."

Several groups representing fishermen, meanwhile, cautioned against a blanket prohibition on competitive fishing of the rays.

"It's no different from the other tournaments, and it's very detrimental to the watermen," said Bruce Bereano, a lobbyist for the Chesapeake Bay Commercial Fishermen's Association, which is opposed to the bill. "It would be like (telling) a farmer you can't shoot deer who are eating all your crops."

Cownose rays, who travel to the Chesapeake Bay to mate and raise their young each year between May and October, have long been vilified as predators of the bay's oyster and blue crab populations. The Save the Bay, Eat a Ray campaign encouraged people to fish and consume rays as a method of population control.

Recent research contradicts the perception that rays are a danger to the bay's ecosystem. Findings from an October 2015 workshop held at the National Aquarium suggest that although cownose rays eat oysters, they are not invasive and the shellfish do not make up a large portion of their diet.

A Florida State University study from 2016 tied declines in oyster populations to disease, over-harvesting and habitat loss, instead.

Advocates fear that fishing contests targeting the rays could endanger their numbers. The species is not protected by state or federal regulations.

Rays' slow reproductive cycles make them especially vulnerable to overfishing, said state Sen. Ronald Young, the Frederick Democrat who is sponsoring the bill.

"They only produce one pup per year and they're very slow to mature," he said. "Research shows that if we don't protect the cownose ray they may see the same fate as sharks."

Young's co-sponsors on the bill include state Sens. Guy Guzzone, D-Howard County; Joanne Benson, D-Prince George's County; and Paul Pinsky, D-Prince George's County. Del. Shane Robinson, D-Montgomery County, has introduced identical legislation the House of Delegates, and 17 other delegates have so far signed on to support it, including Del. Barbara Frush, D-Anne Arundel and Prince George's counties.

But state Sen. John Astle, D-Annapolis, and Del. Wendell Beitzell, R-Garrett County, the co-chairs of the Maryland Legislative Sportsmen's Caucus, asked legislators to hold off on a ban on the cownose ray tournaments until the state's Department of Natural Resources has a chance to establish regulations of its own.

A letter signed by Astle and Beitzell said DNR has notified the public that it is considering restricting the use of bowfishing gear in fishing cownose rays between July 1 and Dec. 31. Advocates say the change wouldn't block the tournament, which is typically held in June. 

Robert T. Brown, president of the Maryland Watermen's Association, told legislators he was concerned a prohibition on tournaments would lead to broader regulations on fishing the rays. An aquaculturalist who plants oysters at the bottom of the bay to harvest later, he said he lost $7,000 last year after cownose rays ate the shellfish.

Brown said the rays beat their wings against the bay floor to stir up sand and clear a way to the oysters. "It's just like as if you ring a dinner bell," he said. "Our main concern is the destruction that they do."

Kurt Wall, part of the pro staff at American Bowhunters, the New York-based group that organizes the cownose ray bowfishing tournaments, called the bill "a pure bureaucratic stand being made by (animal rights) groups."

In a letter to the committee, he suggested placing limits on the number of rays that can be hunted in a bowfishing day instead of a ban on tournaments.

Not all fishermen agreed ending competitive bowfishing of the rays would be a negative, however.

Dennis Fleming, a Potomac River Fisheries commissioner, said he couldn't understand "killing for entertainment and prizes."

"Killing an animal for fun and then throwing it in the dumpster to rot goes against everything I have ever been taught about respect for the Chesapeake Bay and hunting and fishing ethics," he said.

If the legislation is successful, some advocates hope it could open the door to greater regulation of cownose rays.

"We see this as a first step toward comprehensive conservation," said Sonja Fordham, president of Shark Advocates International. "We're hopeful Maryland will lead the region in this regard."

The bill heads next to a House committee hearing, which has not yet been scheduled.

This story has been updated to reflect the date limitations on a Department of Natural Resources proposal to restrict bowfishing of cownose rays. 

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