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End the senseless slaughter of cownose rays

Op-ed: There's an animal slaughter underway in our state that will shock most Marylanders.

There's a slaughter underway in our state that will shock most Marylanders. Innocent animals are being shot at close range with arrows, bludgeoned with bats and piled into a barrel to suffocate and die — not for food, not to prevent harm, but merely for prizes and entertainment.

While this may sound like a scene from a horror flick, this cruelty is being visited on gentle and intelligent Chesapeake Bay creatures: cownose rays.

Cownose rays migrate up the Atlantic Ocean to the bay in May to give birth to their pups and mate almost immediately afterward. But tragically, the rays' migration now may end in a cruel, senseless death through inhumane contests that are currently legal.

As the rays glide along the water's surface — making easy targets — participants compete for prize money for the "heftiest kill" by shooting them from boats with archery equipment. Once shot, the rays are brought onboard the boat and beaten with bats and suffocated. These contests have been taking place for two decades, largely unnoticed until recent videos highlighted the brutality of the contests.

Many Marylanders can appreciate that traditional hunting and fishing may result in food for a family. But these tournaments have nothing to do with obtaining a meal. Ray meat has a distinct ammonia flavor and is difficult to prepare; hardly anyone eats it. After these contests, participants have been filmed dumping rays' bodies back into the water or tossing them into dumpsters. This is the legal definition of wanton waste: to intentionally waste something negligently or inappropriately. It's also blood sport.

I've heard people say that rays are a pest and bad for the bay, but this simply is not true. Cownose rays are part of the natural Chesapeake Bay ecosystem. A 2016 report by a team of scientists led by Florida State University researcher Dean Grubbs debunked an earlier study that suggested cownose rays were harmful to oysters and shellfish populations. The report explains that oyster declines were due to disease, over-harvesting, over-sedimentation and habitat loss — not cownose rays.

Indeed, it seems clear that killing rays poses an actual threat to the Chesapeake. Cownose rays are not invasive; they have been a part of the Chesapeake Bay ecosystem since before Capt. John Smith arrived here. These animals have coexisted with oysters and scallops for thousands of years. Jack Cover, the renowned General Curator of the National Aquarium, has stated that cownose rays play a part in the ecology of the bay and it's a real danger to over-fish them.

To its credit, the Maryland Department of Natural Resources is getting involved. The department recently issued a public scoping notice for proposed regulations prohibiting the use of projectile gear for recreational anglers to catch cownose rays from July 1 through Dec. 31. The six-month ban would be a first step in protecting rays, but these regulations will not solve the broader problem on their own.

In fact, these contests often take place before July 1, sometimes as early as May, but frequently in June when females are pregnant, so many of the rays killed in the contests are "with pup." Rays are particularly vulnerable to overfishing since their population growth is so slow. Cownose rays have one of the lowest lifetime fertility estimates of any fish species since they mature late and give birth to just one pup a year.

It is imperative that Maryland enacts not only a ban on using archery equipment to catch cownose rays starting in May but also a full ban of these contests.

To protect these native migratory rays and to preserve the Chesapeake Bay's ecosystem, I will introduce legislation, along with Maryland Sen. Ron Young, a Democrat who represents District 3 in Frederick County, in the upcoming 2017 Maryland General Assembly that will prohibit these cruel and unnecessary contests.

Maryland shouldn't allow this brutal practice to take place in our peaceful waters. I hope my fellow Marylanders — fishermen, animal protection advocates and Chesapeake Bay lovers — will join me in ending these killing tournaments for good.

Del. Shane Robinson, a Democrat, represents Maryland's District 39 in Montgomery County; his email is shane.robinson@house.state.md.us.

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