Cownose Conflicts in Chesapeake

This week I was distraught to learn of the cownose ray tournaments that are taking place in the United States, most infamously in Chesapeake Bay, Maryland. At first, I jumped straight on the bandwagon and was outraged by the brutality of bludgeoning hundreds of rays to death in the name of ‘sport’. However, after researching further into the matter, I came to realise that perhaps these tournaments are just another example of miscommunication and a conflict of interests.

In Chesapeake Bay, the collapse of the scallop and oyster fisheries has been economically detrimental. With so many people depending on the success of the fisheries, which have reduced to a shadow of their former glory, it is understandable that the local population were angry, and they wanted answers. A 2007 landmark paper in the journal Science announced that with fewer sharks around, the species they prey upon — like cownose rays — have increased in numbers, and in turn, hordes of cownose rays dining on bay scallops, have wiped the scallops out,”. This appeared to be like a green card. Cownose rays were supposedly the reason for the collapse of Chesapeake’s precious fishery, so controlling their population through hunting and fishing seemed appropriate. Numerous campaigns encouraging the consumption of cownose ray fillets and increasing numbers of ray tournaments throughout affected areas were encouraged. With this landmark paper, having over 900 citations to date, proving its popularity, it is understandable how so many saw hunting as a viable option.

All of this was turned on its head last year when a Florida State University study was published, indicating that oysters and hard-clams do not form a significant proportion of a cownose rays’ diet. Perhaps, more importantly, the collapsed oyster fisheries are thought to be due to other factors such as overfishing and disease rather than the cownose population itself. Even better than that, cownose rays are only thought to form part of the diets of blacktip and sandbar sharks, comprising only 3% of the blacktip diet and 0.3% of the sandbar diet. It is easy to see why the assertion that the decimation of shark populations is causing a population boom of cownose rays is rubbish.

Cownose rays have a slow population growth, making them vulnerable to overfishing and at present neither state nor federal regulations protect them. What makes matters worse, in my opinion, is that Chesapeake Bay is an integral breeding site for the cownose ray populations. Many of the rays that are hunted for tournaments are either pregnant females on their way to give birth or newly born offspring. It comes as no surprise then that these hunting tournaments pose a threat to the stabilisation of cownose ray populations, despite their IUCN rating currently being ‘near threatened’.

As of January 2017, a proposed bill to ban fishing contests on cownose rays in Maryland was produced. This legislation would prevent the organisation, sponsorship, promotion, conductance, or participation in cownose ray fishing tournaments with the objective of catching or killing them for prizes or recreation. It is without a doubt that more research is required into the impacts of the cownose population on the Bay, before this legislation is moved forward. Moreover, if cownose ray hunting remains legal, it is fundamental that there are legal requirements with regards to their slaughter. At present, it is the brutality and the lack of humane killing which is enraging people the most, in my view. If there were laws which strictly stipulated that these rays must be killed quickly and humanely, and within quotas, a happy medium could be found.

Perhaps the most shocking part of all this is that in many cases, almost all the rays are dumped overboard post-killing. It seems as though although the threat of cownose rays to local fisheries may have been the spark to these hunting tournaments, it is no longer the principal reason behind the slaughter. The idea that the rays are not even being killed for economic or sustenance purposes infuriates me the most. It truly is senseless killing. Without a doubt, some form of regulation needs to be put in place with regards to these tournaments if an outright ban is not plausible.

“Allowing an unregulated fishery for these rays is as foolish as it was to let the fisheries for large sharks to develop unregulated”