Volume 12, Issue 36 ~ September 2 - 8, 2004
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The Army Corps’ Cow-Nosed Ray Feeding Project

When the Army Corps of Engineers gets involved, the environment and endangered species often take a hit. So, recently, did taxpayers when the Corps botched its big plan for restoring Chesapeake Bay oysters.

The only beneficiary when the Corps “carpet-bombed” a million oysters into the southern reaches of the Bay was the herd of cow-nosed rays that devoured the million as a sumptuous oyster brunch.

The sounds that could be heard from the Great Wicomico River near the Maryland-Virginia border in June were the migrating rays flapping their meaty wings in delight and chuckling watermen, who know a lot about rays and their fondness for shellfish.

The Corps’ project manager did little to reassure us about the future of oyster restoration when the episode came to light last week. The feast was first reported by Scott Harper in The Virginian-Pilot.

“We really didn’t know anything about the cow-nosed ray. … It kind of surprised us,” said Doug Martin, the fellow in charge of the $78,000 blunder.

The Corps should have known better. And perhaps Bay politicians should have known better than to entrust Army engineers with such a critical mission.

This is about more than a summer smorgasbord for rays. We — newspapers, policy analysts and, we hope, political leaders — are well into a re-evaluation of where we’ve gone wrong in curing what ails Chesapeake Bay.

That includes looking anew at who we put in charge.

By most yardsticks — the oyster collapse, plummeting blue crab harvests and the Bay’s oxygen-short “dead zones” — a two-decade effort has been sadly short on dividends.

We’ve seen too many expensive, duplicative studies and cheery forecasts divorced from reality. We have a Chesapeake Bay Program being scrutinized for sugar-coating report cards on Bay health and a Chesapeake Bay Commission appointed to “balance interests” rather than to rescue the Bay [Vol. XII, No 34: Aug. 19].

So why are we letting the Army waste scarce resources on a task they know little about: saving species? Much of the Corps’ environmental mission across the country these days consists of repairing damage to the environment that its engineers have created over the last century with dam-building, river channelization, bank stabilization and other so-called improvements.

If we need federal assistance, wouldn’t we be better off entrusting U.S. Fish and Wildlife Service or a scientific agency with recovering the Bay’s bounty?

Might we be better served by detailing a biologist or two to the Corps (or a waterman) for their next bright idea?

Seems like just about everybody with a stake in Chesapeake Bay health might agree.

Except cow-nosed rays, who are said to be gazing skyward in hopes of another surprise feast.

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