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A happy denizen of bay with taste for oysters

THE BALTIMORE SUN

One of the oddest sights I can recall on the bay was a waterman, about this time several years ago, unrolling barbed wire from his workboat into Virginia's Rappahannock River.

Back and forth he maneuvered, laying wire in grids, as if trying to fence off the river bottom.

I later learned that is exactly what he was attempting. He had oyster leases there, with thousands of dollars in shellfish growing fat, he hoped, by harvest time in the fall.

As he labored, great herds of a curious, oyster-loving sea creature were flapping and gliding up the bay from as far away as South America, to pass the summer mating and birthing their pups.

Often misnamed "skates" and confused with sharks by swimmers who see the triangular tips of their wings, Rhinoptera bonasus, the cownose ray, is the estuary's most common and widespread stingray.

Named for their lobed nose and round eyes, which impart a bovine look, the rays can exceed 50 pounds, with a wingspan of four feet or more.

This summer, an unusual upsurge in their numbers has brought ray sightings from throughout the bay, to above the Bay Bridge.

Capt, John Smith in 1608 was perhaps the creature's first publicist. He sent back to England an account of his near-death (or so he felt at the time) encounter with one.

He was pierced by a ray's toxin-laden spine while spearing fish for dinner with his sword off the Rappahannock's mouth.

He recovered enough to eat the ray that stung him. He labeled the point of land where it happened Stingray Point on his map of the bay; and the name endures.

He also named an island for his ship's physician, a Dr. Russell, for nursing him back to health; but that name did not stick.

Now known as Smith Island, Maryland's only inhabited offshore community took its name, not from Captain John, but most likely from Henry Smith, who grazed cattle there in the 1600s.

The rays, which will be around until September, have unique dentition on their pale, flat underside -- a set of hard, grinding plates that can make short work of their favorite food, soft clams, or even a mature oyster in its shell.

Level of balance

With misinformation already rampant about rockfish eating all the bay's crabs, the last thing I want is to blame the oyster's sad demise on rays.

As with almost every creature of the estuary, all four have co-evolved to a level of balance. Rock, crabs, oysters and rays were abundant in John Smith's time, somehow surviving before we lent them the benefit of modern fisheries management.

Nonetheless, that Rappahannock waterman had good reason to submerge his barbed wire.

To protect oysters from marauding rays, other watermen through the years have tried percussion bombs, breastworks of sharpened stakes -- even underwater "scarecrows," white-painted boards tied to cinder blocks.

Robert A. Hedeen, in his 1986 book, "The Oyster," acknowledges that almost every fish that swims has at one time been accused -- usually on flimsy evidence -- of destroying shellfish.

"An exception to this," he writes, "is the cownose ray . . . which is a serious predator."

Hedeen says one Virginia oyster planter lost $40,000 to rays in a single year; and a planter on Chincoteague Bay told me once of sitting in a boat, listening to the crunching of a ray brigade eating his profits below.

As for the barbed wire oysterman, I was told that by autumn the wire would rust enough to fall apart when tonging or dredging began. I never learned whether it worked.

'Bumper year'

With so many rays around this year, I asked Bob Fisher, a 'D seafood specialist at the Virginia Institute of Marine Science, whether we are experiencing some new and potentially troubling increase.

Fisher thinks probably not, though "it certainly is a bumper year." He has been working to reduce ray numbers by creating a market for their meat.

Historically, he says, it does seem that ray populations took a jump upward some 30 years ago as the bay's haul-seine and pound-net fisheries sharply declined.

Those fishermen would net large numbers of rays and kill them. "They really had no other predator in the bay," Fisher says.

Nor do they seem likely to again, in the short term. Reaction to his attempts to make ray a food item has been lukewarm: "People liked it-- well, they did not dislike it; market penetration proved difficult," he says.

True skates, caught commercially in ocean waters, are in demand for their finely textured, white meat.

Cownose rays have a darker, bloodier meat, coarser in texture, and subject to turning chewy if not cooked properly. It must also be soaked in brine to remove excess urea before cooking.

Taste trial

I once spent the better part of a day preparing to try a ray we "harpooned" with a butcher knife lashed to a crab net handle. We skinned it, fileted it, soaked it and sliced it into strips.

Just as we laid it on the grill, a waterman friend stopped by and gave us five dozen fresh soft crabs, which quenched any passion for grilled ray.

"Sooner or later people will come around to eating it," Fisher maintains. He has a taste trial going with the French now.

Ironically, he thinks a booming demand for rays would soon result in the need for fishing regulations. (You can catch all you want now; they will bite a baited line or a lure.)

He says rays are slow growers, with long gestation periods required to produce their pups, which are born live, little wings folded around their bodies as they emerge.

Similar attributes have led to overfishing in sharks, close cousins of the ray.

For all the bad images attached to something called "stingaree" or "devilfish," the bay's rays have a softer side. John Rue, who used to scuba-dive in the Potomac River, recalls this extraordinary day on the lower river a few years ago.

'Almost inquisitive'

"It was late June, and the water was clear as glass, like it used to be all the time when I was a boy on the Eastern Shore in the 1960s. I saw this big school of rays, and just slipped into the water with them. They were almost inquisitive. When you floated a chunk of bread, they would come right up and inhale it.

"Sometimes a big one would bump you, or you would bump into it; but they weren't aggressive. Their barb is not in their [whiplike] tail, but right where the tail joins the body. You'd have to work hard, step on one, to get stung, I think."

When mating, Rue says, the rays "put on a show and a half," skittering across the water on their stomachs like a skipping stone. In the shallows, they are graceful as ballerinas, like birds in liquid flight.

Aside from that, I couldn't find anything positive rays actually contribute to the bay, anything for which they are needed.

They just seem to find it a delightful place to feed, and raise their families and disport themselves.

Same as us.

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