The utility of shell overlays to oyster (Crassostrea virginica) plantings as a cownose ray (Rhinoptera bonasus) predator deterrence mechanism was examined. Typical industry practice of oyster seed planting was followed in an experimental design employing treatment areas of 0.5–1.0 acre (0.2–0.4 hectare). Areas were prepared in the Lower Machodoc Creek, Virginia, by the initial application of shell to insure a stable substrate under planted seed oysters. Seed oysters were planted using standard industry methods. Experimental areas were located, two upstream and two downstream, of a constriction in the Lower Machodoc that dictated differing physical environments in the respective locations with downstream locations being more exposed to northeast wind-driven stresses and, historically, a greater incidence of ray predation. Once oysters were planted, two of the areas, one upstream and one downstream of the aforementioned constriction, were additionally treated with a shell overlay as a predation deterrent. Oyster seed were planted in the experimental plots in February 2012. Market oysters were harvested from the experimental plots in December 2013 and January 2014. Final harvest data demonstrated that shell overlays do not offer additional protection to planted oyster seed with respect to possible cownose ray predation. Evidence of predation in the form of characteristically broken oyster valves were recorded in all treatment areas. Concurrent stomach content analysis of rays captured at the study location and observations of fouling community associated with the cultured oysters taken during the harvest operation indicate broad dietary preferences for rays when such a variety exists in the foraging region. For rays, oysters are not the singular preferred diet item, although localized and intensive feeding on oysters remains an option with a wide foraging range. Areas without overlay demonstrated higher production than those with shell overlay. Shell overlays are not recommended as predator deterrents for cownose rays in large deployments of unprotected oyster seed.
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Vol. 35 • No. 1