It weighs up to 40 pounds, possesses a whiplike tail with a barbed stinger and, in the words of one observer, looks like something out of an old Lloyd Bridges movie.
But once processed, the cow-nosed ray can be quite tasty and potentially fashionable.
Enter a committee of experts from four Virginia universities and fishery and seafood specialists from around the state to figure out how to market the fish.
"We're going to give it our best shot," said Bill DuPaul, a Virginia Institute Marine Science professor and chairman of the task force. The committee's goal? To get 1,000 pounds of ray wings skinned, wrapped and in the freezer before the fish migrate from the Chesapeake Bay this fall.
The stockpile would allow DuPaul's committee to determine from processing costs what the meat would have to be sold for if a market can be found. At the same time, officials may be able to help the state's oyster beds, which have been ravaged by rays.
At restaurants and seafood dealers, "the first question is always: 'Does it taste good?' " DuPaul said. "Then they want to know how much it will cost."
If the market appears interested, the real challenge lies ahead.
The barbed stingers make the rays unpopular with fishermen.
Then there's the matter of cleaning the fish to get to the meat in the wings. The wings, which can span three feet, are connected to the unwieldy fish by bands of cartilage that are tough to cut.
But once the fish is filleted, the meat is exceptional, DuPaul said. "It's a great fish to put on the grill."
Shirley Berg, of the Virginia Marine Products Board, which promotes Virginia seafood, was equally impressed. She prepared some with capers and white sauce and found it "really delicious. It has a mild flavor that easily adapts to sauces, and I thought it would also be good in seafood chowder."
But its real promise, she believes, might lie in its rarity, which makes it a good bet for the specialty restaurant market.
The reason so much effort is being focused on such an intractable fish is its voracious eating habits. Rays have swarmed into the bay in recent years and left valuable oyster grounds a waste of broken shells. "Cow-nosed rays come in large schools and literally wipe out oyster beds," DuPaul said.
If a market can be developed for rays, their numbers might be reduced to more manageable levels.
Efforts to develop such a market date to 1978 in North Carolina, DuPaul said, but so far no one has solved the problem of economically removing the wings.
He said he is working with Virginia hog processors to see if high-pressure air knives they use might make the wings manageable.