Advocates hope to sell Chesapeake ray fish as tasty delicacy

June 20, 2012

GREENVILLE, Del. (AP) — In mankind’s battle against pesky critters, the strategies have been brutal. We spray them. We swat them. We shoot them and we shock them, seeing outright elimination as its own gratifying end.

In the case of the voracious Chesapeake ray, the approach is far more tasteful and potentially rewarding — the plan is to marinate them, sauté them, and then eat them into submission.

As part of a concerted effort to reduce their over-population in the environmentally delicate Chesapeake Bay, this clam- and oyster-munching fish is being promoted in the region this spring as a versatile and tasty seafood delicacy, making its way into the prepared food case in at least one New Castle County supermarket.

In a handful of Delaware restaurants, chefs are also experimenting with preparations for this winged creature, which is a relative of the shark and similar to the skate, a species that has already won ready acceptance among discerning foodies.

In the case of the Chesapeake ray, however, it may be a bit of a tough sell at first.


Jimmy Thompson, chef at Janssen’s Market in Greenville, Del., shows off a dish featuring the Chesapeake ray. (Robert Craig/AP)

“It looks ‘interesting’ at the very least,” said Jimmy Thompson, chef at Janssen’s Market in Greenville, where the ray is occasionally featured among its prepared food selections. “It makes people say, ‘What’s that?’”

Part of the challenge lies in its obscurity, part in its decidedly non-fishy character. The flesh of these flat-bottomed fish is quite unlike more-familiar sea creatures, and more closely resembles meat in taste and texture, chefs say.

It’s dense, versatile and robust, they say.

Most who try it decide the ray holds solid potential as a favored comestible, especially when paired with sauce that’s suitable for such a neutral-flavored product — a cheesy crab mornay, for example, or a caper-studded meunière, Thompson recommends.

“It’s got a meaty texture to it,” said Mike Hutt, spokesman for the Virginia Marine Products Board in Newport News. “We tell people it’s like veal, flank steak, pork.”

Virginia is taking the lead in marketing the ray as a munchable, hoping to tame its impact on the Chesapeake, where a shortage of its natural predator — the shark — has allowed it to flourish. The fish — which weigh up to 45 pounds — migrate to the bay in early June, then depart in September.

In the meantime, they’re insatiable.

“While they’re here, they have to eat,” Hutt said. “Whatever’s available, that’s what they feed on - clams, oysters, small crabs, small fish. . We’ve had problems with these for years and years and years.”

“They’re completely wiping out the shellfish, and it’s hurting the ecosystem,” Thompson said.

At one point, they even tried to battle the ray by building cages around the oyster bars. “None of that worked either,” Hutt said. And a prior effort to market the ray as a food several years back was less than successful.

“It never took off or went anywhere,” he said.

Over at Dawson’s Seafood in Wilmington, a popular purveyor among local restaurateurs, co-owner Jeanie Harper been trying to whet appetites by providing samples of the ray to commercial customers.

“It takes an avant-garde chef to do it, because it’s very different from the skate,” she said.

Today’s ecological sensibilities and preferences for “green” practices could work in the ray’s favor this time around, she believes. “I think people have more consciousness about sustainability now versus then,” she said.

Ultimately, economics and taste may prove to be the product’s prime pluses, said Jobe Hoy, Dawson’s co-owner. “I hope you’ll be seeing it on a lot more menus in the next quarter,” he said. “It’s kind of a win-win for everybody.”

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