Apparently, Maryland lawmakers don’t like cownose ray hunts much, either.
Every year, between May and October, cownose rays migrate to the Chesapeake Bay to mate. Every summer, fishermen likewise descend on the bay, armed with bows and arrows to see who can kill the biggest ones, oftentimes for cash prizes. The tournaments have attracted national attention, including from animal rights groups that argue the practice is inhumane.
Animal rights advocates point to the fact that many hunters don’t eat or keep them and instead just toss the rays’ bodies back into the water. Hunters, meanwhile, have defended the practice as a way to keep the migratory ray population at bay during the summer.
Robert T. Brown, president of the Maryland Watermen’s Association, said he feels hunters should be allowed to kill them at will. “They are very detrimental to the seafood industry,” Brown said. “They kill a lot of oysters [and] clams. They destroy our grass beds, which help filter the water for submerged aquatic vegetation and give small fish a place to hide.”
Some experts have argued otherwise, saying the rays really don’t do much systemic harm to the bay’s crab and shellfish populations. One study led by Florida State University professor Dr. Dean Grubbs concluded oyster populations declined well before cownose rays became abundant in their habitats. Experts who attended a scientific workshop in 2015 at Baltimore’s National Aquarium concluded that while rays do eat oysters, they’re not an invasive species and aren’t to blame for population declines.
What’s more, said Kathryn Kullberg, director of marine and wildlife protection for the Humane Society of the United States, is that there’s no limit on how many rays hunters can kill in Maryland. “There’s no fishery for cownose rays, so you can kill as many as you would like,” she said.
This year, four Democratic Maryland senators, two from Prince George’s County and two from Frederick and Howard counties, sponsored a bill to permanently ban the competitions in Maryland waters. (The Humane Society of the United States helped draft the proposal.)
Last week, the bill was amended on the Senate floor to reduce the outright ban to a two-year moratorium on ray hunting, Kullberg said. The bill says the ban would last until July 1, 2018. However, the amended version also requires that the Maryland Department of Natural Resources study the effects of the ray population in the bay and prepare a fishery management plan by the end of the year.
Last night, all 46 members of the Maryland Senate voted in favor of the two-year moratorium. Advocates cheered the legislators’ decision.
“Ending killing contests of cownose rays is critical at this juncture,” Kullberg said. “They are cruel, inhumane and wasteful events that have no place in Maryland.”
Those who oppose the ban are hoping for a different outcome in the House of Delegates, which is taking up an identical bill with 18 co -sponsors. Its first hearing in the House Environment and Transportation Committee is scheduled for tomorrow.
“We hope they’ll defeat it,” Brown said. “There’s not enough scientific information on it to prove they’re not hurting anything. The only other natural predator other than man is a shark.”
Kullberg said the notion of uncontrolled ray killing is unfitting for the Free State. “Killing of animals for fun and cash prizes really is antithetical to the way Marylanders believe wildlife should be treated,” she said.
Kullberg will testify at the House committee hearing tomorrow, she said.
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