Stingrays for Dinner: To Eat or Not to Eat?

BUFFALO, N.Y. — Curious shoppers may notice a peculiar new offering at certain Wegmans seafood counters this summer: fillets of the cownose ray, a square-snouted species of stingray.

Tender and surprisingly beefy, cuts of the rose-hued meat can be strung onto kabobs bejewelled with pineapple chunks, or cooked Creole-style, swimming in tomato sauce and a jumble of spices.

If you’ve never had a stingray for dinner before, now may be the time to try one. But before you sample it, you should consider the story behind Wegmans’ decision to start selling the fish. Seafood is a complicated business.

Wegmans began offering the cownose ray at stores in Maryland and Virginia last year after learning that the kite-shaped predators were frustrating efforts to restore oyster fisheries in the Chesapeake Bay.

Each summer, the rays converge on those waters to breed and dine on shellfish, posing a headache for fishermen raising and hunting oysters.

To help fight the pests, restauranteurs down south have added the ray to menus, experimenting with dishes ranging from breaded ray strips to plates of sushi featuring stingray handrolls alongside farm-raised Chespeake oyster.

With the encouragement of industry and government officials, Wegmans decided to give the ray a try.

Company chefs tested a few recipes—ray with porcini mushroom, ray with cracked pepper and basting oil—and found the results delectable. Soon after, Wegmans introduced the winged fish to patrons under the moniker “Chesapeake ray.”

For the family-owned grocery chain, the new offering reflects a long-time devotion to sourcing seafood with the health of the oceans in mind.

Conservationists have praised the retailer for practices such as pushing suppliers to adopt sustainable aquaculture techniques, and halting the sale of species including shark, swordfish and bluefin tuna that endangered or vulnerable to overfishing. For two years running, steps like these have earned Wegmans a No. 2 ranking on a supermarket seafood sustainability scorecard that Greenpeace, one of the world’s leading environmental organizations, publishes.

Still, when it comes to the cownose ray, the story isn’t simple.

Groups marketing the winged fish as an eco-friendly seafood choice often assert that the species has experienced a population boom due to severe overfishing of the animals’ natural predators, sharks. The source of this information is a study on the subject that has received widespread media attention since results were made public in 2007.

The catch: Though the research appeared in Science, a premier, peer-reviewed journal, not all experts agree with the findings.

R. Dean Grubbs, an assistant scholar scientist at the Florida State University Coastal and Marine Laboratory, is among detractors.

He points out that cownose rays, scientific name Rhinoptera bonasus, are not prolific in their reproduction. They take about eight years to mature, have an 11-month gestation period and typically produce a single pup each year, Grubbs said.

He argues that claims of a huge jump in stocks of the fish are based on poor interpretation of data, and he co-signed a letter to the Virginia Marine Resources Commission last August stating as much.

“Many leading elasmobranch scientists…dispute the claims that cownose rays have dramatically increased in number in recent years,” the message said. “As this controversial notion is gaining acceptance, there is urgent need for a dedicated population assessment to determine the current status of cownose rays and safe catch levels.”

He and his co-signatories, including two researchers from the Virginia Institute of Marine Science and the president of Shark Advocates International, added that measures such as employing stockades or cages could help protect commercial oyster beds without killing rays.

Carl Salamone, vice president of Wegmans’ seafood department, says the Rochester-based grocer would be interested in helping to establish a well-managed cownose ray fishery once fishermen are actively seeking out those fish.

But he notes that for now, Wegmans’ Chesapeake rays are actually by-catch, netted on accident by fishermen whose primary target is some other species.

Salamone is aware of the intricacies of the seafood trade. Since becoming Wegmans’ first corporate seafood manager in 1974, he has led the retailer’s efforts to source fish responsibly, sometimes pushing the company to stop selling products that customers have enjoyed for many years.

When queried about the dispute surrounding the cownose ray, Salamone responded that while he recognizes that different organizations often have divergent opinions about seafood sustainability, “what we do know is that for approximately three months out of the year, the rays enter the Chesapeake Bay and cause damage to the shellfish industry there.”

So consumers in the Buffalo area should be able to find ray fillets at select Wegmans stores over the next few weeks, until the rays leave the Chesapeake Bay for other waters.

Whether you decide to take one home or not, the debate over the species’ future illustrates the complexity of today’s seafood market. Every cut of fish that reaches our dinner plates has a story.

The lesson: We should think before we eat.


Select Wegmans locations in the Buffalo area have been carrying the cownose ray, but availability may be limited, with stores receiving shipments of different fish on different days.

This story was eyeballed and approved by Robert Salonga, a crime and public safety reporter for the Contra Costa Times in the San Francisco Bay Area.

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7 Comments Stingrays for Dinner: To Eat or Not to Eat?

  1. Rich Krawczyk

    Thanks for the article – the sentence that reads “Tender and surprisingly beefy, cuts of the rose-hued meat can be strung onto kabobs bejewelled with pineapple chunks, or cooked Creole-style, swimming in tomato sauce and a jumble of spices” sounds more like an advertising clip than a personal observation. Have you actually tried eating the ray and if so, did you like it? And, who hasn’t thought about becoming an elasmobranch scientist!

    Reply
  2. Charlotte Hsu

    Hi fellas. No, I haven’t tried it. The details about the flavors came from descriptions I saw repeated in different news stories, as well as from a firsthand account I received from a Rochester-area resident who has tried the ray at least a couple times. The recipes came from here: http://web.vims.edu/rayrecipes/. Anyway. Sorry about the advertise-y flavor of that one line you pointed out. I suppose the fact that I hadn’t sampled it showed!

    Reply
  3. Ellen Goldbaum

    Great story. But not sure I’ll try stingray although we eat lots of seafood. Wasn’t there something about pollution in the Chesapeake last year? Did I see it on PBS? or maybe I made it up. Anyway, I don’t know, possibly a perception thing: when I hear fish is from Iceland or Alaska I think ah, cold and pristine. When I hear it’s from the Chesapeake, I feel like it’s too close to densely populated areas, thus, I will skip it. Makes no sense maybe. Story for another day: what we really think about consuming seafood when we stop and think about it!

    Reply
  4. Ai

    Found this blog by accident while searching for health benefits of stingrays lol

    I’m from Malaysia. We eat a lot of stingrays and have lots of stingray recipes. While our stingray species may not be similar to what they have in Chesapeake but once you’ve eat one stingray, you can guess the taste of every stingray.

    It’s not disgusting. Sure, it’s a little bit more slimy than say, tuna, but that’s not a problem. Catfish is also slimy.

    The reason people choose to eat stingray are:
    1) Its’ incredibly soft texture
    2) The bones are a non-issue, you can’t choke on stingray bones.
    3) Separating stingray flesh from its bones is incredibly easy
    4) Stingray flesh simply melts on your tongue. It really melts, spreading a delicious gourmet taste as if you’re enjoying premium chocolates
    5) Stingray has a distinct aroma that is released when you roast or grill it
    6) If marinated right, the moment it melts on your tongue, the aroma of both the flesh and the marinate will seep into your throat and nose, making you feel pleased and hungry at the same time.

    Now, for those who have no idea how to cook it, ask the Malaysians. This is the recipe from a famous Malaysian chef, but I don’t cook them following her methods, so I’m not sure if this is good or not.

    http://www.kuali.com/recipes/Baked-Stingray-Wrapped-in-Foil/

    This one is my favourite:

    http://themalaykitchen.com/2013/07/27/asam-pedas-ikan-pari-sting-ray-in-spicy-and-sour-gravy/

    Reply

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