PATUXENT, OAK ISLAND, WASHINGTON D.C.––On Saturday, June 13, 2015, dozens of men pointlessly killed perhaps hundreds of harmless cownose rays––among the smallest and most innocuous members of the shark family––near the mouth of the Patuxent River on Chesapeake Bay, Maryland.
Hosted by Fred’s Sports, self-described as “Southern Maryland’s largest hunting, fishing, & gun store, the so-called “Battle of the Rays” was not really a battle at all; ray guns are strictly a device of science fiction.
Shot from boats with compound bows, gaffed, and bludgeoned, the rays had no weapons with which to fight back.
Not even killed for fins
Blogged Humane Society of the U.S. president Wayne Pacelle nine days earlier, “It is estimated that fishermen kill between 26 and 73 million sharks every year for their fins, which are the central ingredient in shark fin soup. This staggeringly large toll has been amassed, for the most part, in regions of the world where shark finning is unregulated and the trade in fins largely unrestricted.”
But killing sharks just for their fins is illegal in U.S. waters, and is further prohibited by nine coastal states. The victims of the “Battle of the Rays” and many similar ray-killing contests held in the Chesapeake Bay region are not finned––just weighed, with prizes going to whoever lands the three rays with the greatest cumulative weight, never mind how many other rays are killed before each killing team is satisfied that it has a contending trio.
While HSUS and the HSUS global arm Humane Society International have lobbied hard against shark finning, both in the U.S. and abroad, neither HSUS nor any other major animal welfare or conservation charity monitors ray-killing contests.
Fish Feel & SHARK
The “Battle of the Rays” was monitored, documented, and exposed only by Fish Feel, a barely one-year-old organization founded by longtime Washington D.C. area animal rights advocate Mary Finelli, and SHARK, founded in 1992 by former shark hunter Steve Hindi, whose 1996 essay “I was a fish killer” remains perhaps the strongest statement on record in opposition to sport fishing.
Said Hindi, scheduling a June 22, 2015 press conference at the Maryland state capital to present his findings, “Graphic undercover video documents a horrific slaughter of cownose rays, who were shot by arrows at point-blank range. The rays were then gaffed and repeatedly clubbed with bats before slowly suffocating to death.
“Hundreds of cownose rays––many of them pregnant––were mutilated, killed, and then dumped as garbage into the river,” Hindi continued. “Over a hundred bowfishers participated.”
Finelli observed the “Battle of the Rays” with fellow Fish Feel board members Howard Edelstein and Michael Gurwitz.
“We’re planning to return for the two that are scheduled for the last weekend in June, to be held in Maryland and Virginia,” Finelli told ANIMALS 24-7.
“Raptors of the ocean”
“Cownose rays, a type of eagle ray, are like the raptors of the ocean,” Finelli said, “gliding through and occasionally leaping above it with their large wing-like fins. They are gentle creatures whom many people have had the pleasure of peacefully interacting with in the wild,” sometimes also featured in petting exhibits at aquariums.
“Since time immemorial they have visited the Chesapeake Bay to mate and give birth to their pups,” Finelli continued. “They take about seven years to mature, and females only have one pup a year.
“Gliding along the water’s surface,” Finelli said, “the rays are easy pickings for bowfishers. After being shot, the rays are mercilessly bludgeoned.”
At the “Battle of the Rays,” Finelli saw, “Some killers incompetently used clubs; others clumsily wielded a hammer. It was sickening to watch and to hear the rays being whacked again and again and again, their frantic wing movements slowly dying down. They were then thrown back into the water dead or dying, or piled on top of each other to suffocate.
“Back on shore there was a party atmosphere,” Finelli described, “with drinking and bravado while country music blared. Bloody rays were hoisted on stage, where little girls helped draw raffle tickets. Others were piled in plastic containers, garbage dropped on top of them.
“The wanton killing of these benign beings is disapproved by both scientists and government. It’s a gutless act by those with contempt of nonhuman animals and gross disrespect and ignorance of the natural world,” Finelli charged.
The pretext for ray-killing contests is the widespread but inaccurate belief that rays contribute to depleting the heavily over-collected Chesapeake Bay oyster population, which is also beleaguered by water pollution from upstream factory pig and poultry farms.
Says Virginia Institute of Marine Science fisheries specialist Robert Fisher, “They are definitely a misunderstood species, and unfortunately they have been labeled a villain, as far as the shellfish growers are concerned.”
Fisher found in a November 2010 report for the National Oceanic and Atmospheric Administration that oysters do not actually “make up a significant portion of the diet of cownose rays.”
Instead, Fisher’s study, summarized Janet Krenn in May 2011 for Virginia Sea Grant, “indicates that cownose rays’ mouths aren’t strong enough to crush and eat larger oysters, but this physical limitation doesn’t stop rays from trying. The result? Cownose rays pick up and swim away with large oysters, but eventually drop them after failing to crack the shells open. This behavior could help disperse large, reproductively mature oysters throughout the Bay.
Rays eat unprotected seed oysters
“Ever since 2003,” Krenn continued, “when a group of rays was seen descending on an oyster bed and eating all but a few of the newly planted oysters, industry and oyster restoration groups alike have been trying to find ways to keep rays out. According to reports, in a couple of hours those rays ate more than one million seed oysters, which were about the size of a fingernail. Fisher’s study, looking at the ray’s ability to crush oysters of various sizes, came as a response to shellfish growers’ concerns.
“If you put out unprotected seed, and rays come by,” Fisher found, “they’re going to get eaten,” but if the seed oysters are not made accessible until their shells thicken, they will not be harmed by rays.
Wrote Tom Pelton for the Chesapeake Bay Foundation later in 2011, “When California’s oyster growers launched a program to eradicate oyster-eating bat rays, the campaign appeared to backfire and cause more oyster mortality, according to ray researchers and Sonja Fordham, president of Shark Advocates International. As it turned out, the California rays were not eating many oysters, but they were eating oyster predators, such as crabs, which became more numerous.”
Elaborated Fordham, to Audubon writer Ted Williams in 2012, “The fishery is completely unregulated. This animal has one pup a year, if that. I talk to people at the seafood shows who claim cownose rays are being fished sustainably. When I ask them for evidence they say they’re a ‘nuisance.’ Well, that doesn’t make them sustainable. That’s how the coastal shark fishery got started. People saw declining swordfish and lots of sharks. So with no thought about biology, they promoted coastal shark fishing. That’s why we have species like duskies that won’t recover for a hundred years.”
Shark attacks at Oak Island
On Sunday, June 14, 2015, while Steve Hindi and Mary Finelli were triaging their videotapes and photographs of the “Battle of the Rays,” an unidentified shark or sharks made international newscasts by inflicting bites that caused two teenagers to lose limbs at Oak Island, North Carolina, about 400 miles south of Patuxent.
A 12-year-old girl from Asheboro lost part of her left arm and suffered a leg injury, while a 16-year-old boy from Colorado lost his left arm below the shoulder about an hour later, two miles away.
Horrific as the incidents were, they were extraordinarily rare. “From 1953 to 2011 there were only 103 verified great white shark attacks in California, with 12 fatalities,” according to George Burgess, head ichthyologist at the Florida Museum of Natural History in Gainesville––in other words, over 54 years about half as many total attacks and the same number of fatalities as pit bulls inflicted just in the first six months of 2015.
Burgess estimates that worldwide, humans kill about 14 million sharks for every human whom sharks kill.
Cownose rays have yet to kill or disfigure anyone.
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