The Chesapeake Bay oyster, often embattled but ever sublime is under attack again, and it appears our duty is to rally and eat the enemy.
The enemy in this case is the cow-nosed ray, a bat-winged barb-tailed sea creature invading the bay in the everincreasing numbers and munching its way through oyster beds with terrazo-like teeth.
Outraged watermen, who've tried everything from cherry bombs to barbed wire barricades to keep the rays off the shellfish beds, say the very industry itself may be at stake.
"They just about eradicated commerical oysters last year," said Wes Conley, a Rappahannock River oyster grower and processor. "I lost $40,000 in planted oysters in one season alone."
Racing to the rescue, however, is Dr. John Merriner a bearded biologist with the Virginia Institute of Marine Science, who heads something called the Sea Grant Cownose Ray Protect that is designed to turn the oyster-eating flatfish from an uninvited diner into a gourment meal.
"If we can establish a market for rays a commerical fishery will control the problem in no time at all." Merriner said. "But persuading people to eat rays, that's another thing altogether."
Uglier than an octopus, more repugnant than its cousin, the shark, the cownose ray (Rhinoptera bonasus) is merely a stringray with a bulbous, bovine snout at the apex of its winged fins.
Like its giant relative, the fabled manta ray or devilfish of maritime fiction, the cownose ray is, however, extraordinarily functional: a boneless cartilaginous creature of striking grace and speed in the water, through which it undulates wearing its lips creased in perpetual smile.
The most common - and thus the most damaging - of 14 species of rays and skates in the bay, it ranges from New England to Brazil, migrating in schools into the Chesapeake in early April and out again in late September.
There's nothing new about their presence in the bay. Capt. John Smith, one of the bay's first recorded visitors, stabbed one out of the water with his sword in 1610 and got stabbled back - by the barb on the ray's tail.
Wincing from painful wounds in his wrist and lower arm, Smith promptly named the spot (at the southern mouth of the Rappahannock River) Stingray Point, which it remains today. He then pulled his boats to the north side of the river and recovered for several days on the banks of a hospitable stream still known as Anti-Poison Creek.
Smith, however, got the last laugh. According to several accounts of his life and explorations in the Jamestown Colony," he filled his stomach that very evening with the fish that had so tormented him."
The Sea Grant Cownose Ray Project envisions the same remedy for the tormented oysterman.
Rays weigh up to 45 pounds and occasionally larger and yields as much as 15 pounds of edible filets from their wings - flesh highly-prized by the best French cooks but herefore largely shunned by less adventurous Americans.
Under encouragement from Merriner and others, several seafood packers have been exploring foreign markets for ray meat, including a White Stone, Va., processor named George Washington who deals fish on the shore of Anti-Poison Creek.
"They told me to find out a buyer for this stuff and we did the hell out for that," said Washington. "I got an order right now for 100,000 pounds of ray meat to send to Nigeria, but I can't get anybody to catch me the dame stuff."
Cranston Morgan, a White stone oyster processor, said watermen have traditionally been leery of the rays, which can weigh down and break their nets, require special handing and can infict dangerous wounds with their barbed tails.
In years past, he said, fisherman would just net them and drag them onto the beach by the hundreds to rot, "but now our friends from the North have brought up all the waterfront property and you can get sued if you let a dead croaker wash up."
The decline in netting, together with the ray's lack of natural enemies, have combined to boost the ray population sharply in the past five years, particularly on the oyster grounds of the lower York, James and Rappahannock rivers.
Sweepings into the shallows in large schools with their grey-green backs, white underbellies and wing spread approaching four feet, the rays frequently trigger shark panics among nearby boaters, particularly when a pointed wingtip slips out of the water.
The oystermen said that probably the only real way to get at the rays is with a haul seine - presently illegal in the bay - trawled over the shallow oyster banks where the rays feed.
They said they are currently exploring the possibility of a special limited permit for haul seining just for rays.
Meanwhile biologist Merriner is trying to learn more about the life cycle of the seldom-studied cownose, including whether it feeds selectively on oysters or eats everything in sight.
So far it appears, he said, that the rays actually prefer shell claims and switched to oysters in 1972 when the claims were nearly wiped out in the bay by Hurricane Agnes.
"They have huge flat teeth just like bathroom tiles," he said. "They bite the top few inches off the oyster shells and beat their wings to make a suction that pulls the oyster out. They can slurp up a hell of lot of oysters that way. A whole school can wipe out a bed in no time."
Morgan said "the most frustrating thing is our seeming inability to communicate the seriousness of this situation. We mention the cownose ray and people to laugh, but the very oyster industry is at stake . . ."
"It's not simply the oysters we plant that we lose," said Wes Conley, "it's the psychological effect. The Virginia oyster industry has been declining generally and become more and more dependant on private, seeded beds. After our beds got wiped out last year, none of us replanted. We're just not capitalized to take that risk."
Everybody involved in the cownose ray project, however, seems to think that Americans can eat their way out of this crisis if only they will try.
This week, in an effort to whet the appetities of potential ray meat customers, Virginia Polytechnic Institute and State University and the Virginia Seafood Council sponsored a taste testing of baked and fried ray meat for 70 home economists in Newport News.
Don Ward, an extension specialist in food technology, said no one objected to the meal, which the participants described as tasting like everything from scallops to veal.
Needing no such encouragement, however, are the gourmets of Washington, where ray meat is occasionally available and treasured as a delicacy.
While the home economists recommend soaking ray meat overnight in brine, then soaking again in fresh water before dripping in batter to bake or fry, the classic French recipe calls for merely scrubbing the wing portions well, poaching them in court boullion of vinegar, water and salt, and saucing them with browned melted butter, capers and a dash of wine vinegar.
Camille Richaudeau, who peddles ray in black butter and capers to an applauding Washington public at $6 and $7 a portion when he can get it for his restaurant, said he and other French restauranteurs pay 30 and 40 cents a pound for fresh ray wings.
"They want to sell ray? I buy 100 pounds a week," he said. "Show me where I can find it."