Move over Asian carp, you're not the only pesky species to be eyed by the seafood industry as a potential food source. Officials in Virginia have set their sights on the homely cownose ray, whose population has exploded, in part because of a sharp decline in their natural predator, the inland coastal shark. The population boom is bad news for valuable Chesapeake oysters, clams and scallops. Hungry rays have been known to wipe out entire shellfish beds with their powerful crushing jaws.
Mike Hutt, executive director for the Virginia Marine Products Board has been working to develop a market for the red-fleshed cownose ray (renamed a more appealing Chesapeake Ray), but don't expect it to taste like its white-fleshed cousin, skate.
"It's not flaky, and it has a texture and tastes closer to veal or beef," says Hutt.
Ray Popson, seafood manager at Wegmans in Hunt Valley, Maryland introduced the Chesapeake Ray in his store this morning by handing out tasty samples and placing a whopping 30-pound whole ray on display.
"The reaction has been incredible," says Popson. "Some people don't even know it's in the bay or what it can do."
If consumer response continues to go well, Wegmans anticipates rolling the ray out to its Maryland and Virginia stores shortly, and they're not alone in promoting the fish. Processor L.D. Amory & Company, Inc., has been breading and pre-frying strips of ray, calling the product Chesapeake Stingers; while Chef Tim Miller of restaurant Mie N Yu has been serving the ray to customers as a sushi hand roll for nearly a year.
"It's an adventurous dish for a lot of people who aren't familiar with the ray being used as a main food item. It's always on the menu with a paragraph about why we're serving it, the story behind the dish and that it's considered sustainable," says Miller.
And for now, that's true.
"There's not a big fishery for them, so by default, it's sustainable," says Braddock Spear, fisheries policy expert and blogger at Sustainable Ocean Project. "Virginia is trying to find a market for the fish and if they do, they'll put in regulations to keep it a sustainable fishery."
According to experts, that balance may be tricky to maintain. Cownose rays have an 11-month gestation period and give birth to approximately one pup a year. Harvest can take place when the females are still pregnant, effectively denting the next generation.
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