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Kai Ryssdal: Making your living on, or from the water has never been easy. Fishing can be dangerous. It’s sometimes not very profitable. Increasingly there are strict limits on how much fishermen can catch. And then there are the natural predators. Oystermen near the Chesapeake Bay are hoping they can turn their enemies into a tasty treat. Sabri Ben-Achour reports.
SABRI BEN-ACHOUR: A few miles up Virginia’s Cone river, near the mouth of the Chesapeake Bay, thousands of oysters are beginning their lives in metal tubs, just below the water’s surface. Oysterman AJ Erskine pours them into a sorting machine.
AJ Erskine: They’re about three months old, and they’re ready to go in cages.
The cages — where these bivalves will spend the rest of their lives — are to protect them from what some oystermen call a growing menace: stingrays. Specifically, Cownose rays. Every March, they migrate in from the Atlantic, into the bay and even a short distance up rivers, where they gorge themselves on oysterbeds and disrupt habitat.
ERSKINE: It basically looks like schooling sharks, because the wings break the water and looks like shark fins.
Real sharks would normally chow down on stingrays, but they’ve been overfished. Biologists think it’s one reason why the Rays are becoming a problem. So to protect the Chesapeake’s cash crops like crabs and oysters the state of Virginia is trying to figure out some way to keep the stingrays under control, some way to put them to good use.
At the Sam Miller’s Restaurant in downtown Richmond, Mike Hutt is pushing fried stingray on diners.
MIKE HUTT: Try the taco. It’s Chesapeake Ray, it’s fried, and it’s made into a taco.
Hutt directs Virginia’s Marine Products Board, and he’s in charge of marketing “Chesapeake Ray.”
HUTT: We’re trying to develop it as a food source, to take it out of the bay, and have it on the menus.
They have Ray Fillets and Ray Strips — Spicy and Country style. The red meat is high in protein, low in fat.
HUTT: The meat by itself in a filet or strips is very bland. It tastes like what you add to it.
Hutt is shopping the ray in restaurants across Virginia, he’s going to Korea and Japan to drum up support there. You can probably guess what it tastes like, here’s customer Melissa Bowenriese.
MELISSA BOWENRIESE: It’s kinda, oddly enough, it tastes like chicken. Are you sure that’s not chicken?
People do seem to like it once they try it, but it’s been an uphill battle says Mead Amery, a seafood distributor.
MEAD AMERY: Over the last few years we’ve found out that ray, for reason, has a bad connotation. Sting ray has a very bad connotation for some reason.
Yes, some reason, which brings up a very good question: How do you market something that is basically, you know, unattractive? Turns out history has an answer.
BRUCE KNECHT: The first step is you need a name.
Bruce Knecht is author of “Hooked,” the story of a fish called the Patagonian Toothfish. It’s a monstrous deep sea creature with devilish teeth and oily flesh that nobody ever caught on purpose. Until someone decided to call it Chilean Sea Bass. It’s not a bass, but calling it one made it seem safe, “Chilean” made it exotic.
KNECHT: It kinda took off when it became sort of the fish that trendy chefs in New York and Southern California wanted to have.
Stingray marketers have taken a page from this playbook. Instead of Cownose Ray they call it Chesapeake Ray, they describe it as “the veal of the sea” for its texture.
Oren Molovinsky runs a stylish upscale restaurant in D.C. called Mien Yu. He’s figuring out how he’s going to put ray on his menus.
OREN MOLOVINSKY: We certainly don’t put it on as an entree, for one. It’s very difficult to introduce an ingredient as an entree that people just aren’t used to seeing in this area.
He’ll try it out as an appetizer first, it’s not as big a commitment for the customer. If things really take off in restaurants, there are ideas floating around to use the discarded parts of the ray in medicinal supplements, and use what’s left after that to make fertilizer.
In Washington, I’m Sabri Ben-Achour for Marketplace.
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