A collection of about 60 cownose rays was found on a beach in southern St. Mary’s, seemingly laid out in a pattern, and Maryland Department of Natural Resources Police are investigating the situation.
St. Mary’s resident Bill Erb noticed the dead sea creatures on the beach while out on a boat with his daughter over this past weekend, and was mystified by how they got there.
“We noticed the vultures at first, and then, if you get closer you can smell it, and if you get closer you can see them laid out there,” he said. The rays, laid out from head to tail, had definitely been meddled with by humans, Erb said, but it is unknown what happened.
“It’s almost like some kind of Pagan ritual,” he said, adding he wondered if it was the result of some kind of natural kill-off, or how many people could be involved.
The rays did not appear to have any puncture wounds from bows commonly used to kill them in tournaments.
Cownose rays were the subject of a major controversy in 2015 and 2016 when the nonprofit group Showing Animals Respect and Kindness, or SHARK, captured undercover videos of a cownose ray killing contest in Mechanicsville and uploaded them to YouTube with titles such as “Horrific Ray Slaughter on the Patuxent River.”
Since then, a moratorium was passed and extended banning the killing contests, which usually involved the use of bows to shoot the rays, until DNR creates a fishery management plan for the species.
The rays found on the beach, just south of Webster Field on the Potomac River, did not have any projectile injuries, according to DNR police.
“Our biologists are now looking into this,” Lauren Moses, a spokesperson for the DNR police, said.
It is legal for individuals to hunt and fish for cownose rays in Maryland; only tournaments are banned.
Cownose rays are also suspected to be major consumers of shellfish such as crabs and oysters, which may encourage watermen to kill them.
But Mary Finelli, of the Fish Feel animal advocacy group which teamed up with SHARK to advocate for the legislation banning tournaments, said the rays were being “scapegoated” for eating those sea creatures to advocate in favor of tournaments.
“People claimed they were doing a public service by killing all those rays,” she said, also adding the rays are “very vulnerable to overfishing.”
The DNR was supposed to complete a study on the population of the rays to determine if they were a threatened species, but that study was put on hold due to COVID-19, she said.