Animal rights groups are looking to put an end to what they call “incredibly inhumane” bowfishing contests targeting cownose rays. Thousands of people have signed an online petition calling on Gov. Larry Hogan (R) to prohibit such tournaments.Mary Finelli, president of Fish Feel based in Silver Spring, teamed up with representatives of Showing Animals Respect and Kindness — SHARK — to spotlight the contests by recording video of the Patuxent River Battle of the Rays tournament held in Mechanicsville last month.The cownose ray is a brown kite-like ray that can grow up to 50 pounds, according to the Chesapeake Bay Program. They eat mollusks such as oysters, hard clams and soft-shell clams. They visit the lower and middle Chesapeake Bay from May to October.Finelli said the video of the tournament is intended to alert the public to what is being done to the rays during the tournaments.The video from the tournament shows contestants maneuvering boats up to rays on the surface of the water and shooting them using a bow at point-blank range.Since the video has been circulated, an online petition was created to call for the end of the contests. The petition has more than 119,000 signatures to date.The video also shows contestants beating the rays with bats prior to putting them on the boat and one contestant is recorded attempting to put a baby ray back into the mother prior to weigh-in.One of the tournament’s organizers, Jerry Denton of Mechanicsville, said contestants were looking to catch the heaviest ray or the heaviest combined weight of three rays.He said the tournament included 146 contestants on 48 boats. Denton said there is no regulation on how to kill the animal after it is caught. While acknowledging that beating them with bats may look “barbaric,” he said killing the ray in that manner puts the animal out of its misery rather than letting it suffer out of the water.He said killing the ray prior to bringing it aboard is done as a safety measure to keep the ray’s barbed tail from harming those on the boat.As for the video showing a participant putting a baby back in the belly of its mother before weigh-in, he said there is no way to regulate it, but it is not allowed at the competition. “If we see them doing it, we tell them ‘no’, ” he said.This is the first year Denton and other organizers have hosted the tournament in Mechanicsville, but he said tournaments have been held in other areas for many years.“There is nothing sporty about it, nothing humane about it,” Finelli said.Denton said not all bowfishermen are the way the video portrays them. He said many people kill the rays and use the them for bait, fertilizer or to eat.He said there are thousands of rays in the water destroying the grass beds in the Chesapeake Bay as well as eating oysters and other shellfish.In a counterpetition, supporters are calling for support to continue bowfishing.“Bowfishing is a growing community in which we support the legal harvest and maintenance needed on our waterways from invasive species as well as overpopulated,” a portion of the petition reads. Cownose rays are native to the Chesapeake Bay and its tributaries.To date more than 600 have signed this petition.Currently there is little information on the cownose ray population.According to the National Oceanic and Atmospheric Administration’s website, research is being funded to help develop a better understanding of the ray.NOAA’s Chesapeake Bay office “does not currently support developing a fishery or using other methods to reduce the number of cownose rays in the bay,” the website states. “More science is needed to determine if a sustainable fishery would be possible given the cownose ray’s biology, population numbers and distribution, and reproductive capacity.”Finelli said even with little known about their population, they are native to the bay.“They are just trying to survive,” she said. Fish Feel, SHARK and other animal rights groups formed an informal coalition and submitted testimony at a recent meeting of Maryland’s Sport Fisheries Advisory Commission meeting, Finelli said. The testimony called the contests “incredibly inhumane and ecologically reckless.”Paul Genovese, fisheries service outreach program manager with the Maryland Department of Natural Resources, wrote in an email that formal action was taken on the subject of the cownose rays at the meeting last week.He said DNR cannot manage the species without a management plan, and there is not one in place for the cownose ray. He said the department “does not have the authority to grant nor deny these types of tournaments.”Moving forward, Genovese wrote, “the Department is currently working with the federal government (NOAA) and other bay states to pull together a workshop on the species and discuss possible management actions across the watershed in the future.”<a href="mailto:gphillips%40somdnews.com?subject=">gphillips@somdnews.com</a>