One of the Maryland General Assembly’s leading environmental advocates denounced the Hogan administration Friday for firing the long-time state employee who oversaw the blue crab fishery after some watermen complained to the governor about a catch restriction they could not get lifted.
Speaking at the end of the legislature’s Friday session, Sen. Paul Pinsky charged that Brenda Davis was “summarily fired’ over watermen’s unhappiness with a policy that was set by higher-ups at the Department of Natural Resources.
“She was not a decider, she was an implementer,” Pinsky, a Prince George’s County Democrat, said of Davis, who was manager of DNR’s blue crab program. He said he found her firing “personally abominable,” noting that it deprives the 28-year state employee of a full pension. He called on Gov. Larry Hogan to reinstate her, with an apology.
Pinsky said that the governor “decided to make a sacrifice to appease these watermen. But unfortunately, this was a real person, a state employee of 28 years, who was sacrificed.”
A request to the governor’s press secretary for response to Pinsky’s criticism was answered by a spokesman for the DNR, who said department officials cannot discuss personnel decisions or issues. Stephen Schatz, the department’s communications director, added that his agency “places the highest emphasis on enhancing and improving customer engagement and service as well as providing science-based conservation and management of our environment and natural resources."
Davis said she was dismissed without explanation Tuesday by DNR Fisheries Director Dave Blazer. About a dozen Dorchester County watermen had met with Hogan the previous week and complained about her and the DNR’s unwillingness to ease a rule setting the minimum catchable size for crabs.
Under regulations in effect since 2001, it’s legal to harvest crabs as small as 5 inches across until mid-July, when the minimum size increases to 5 ¼ inches. The midseason increase was set to give male crabs more time in the water to mate with females and enhance reproduction. Tom Miller, a crab scientist and director of the Chesapeake Biological Laboratory with the University of Maryland Center for Environmental Science, said the seemingly small change in catch regulations helps sustain the Bay’s crab population.
The watermen have complained that the bump-up in minimum size hurts their livelihood, as many of the crabs are smaller that time of year in their area. Scott Todd, second vice president of the Maryland Watermen’s Association and a member of the Dorchester group that met with Hogan, said in an interview that the DNR and Davis had been unwilling to give them the relief they sought. It was, he said, “just one continual bang your head meeting against another.”
“I never had anything personal against Brenda,” Todd added. “I don’t want to see anyone fired, but if she had to go to make the lives of 4,000 or 5,000 people a little bit better, I don’t see that we didn’t have a right to complain about it.”
In an interview with the Bay Journal after her dismissal, Davis said the Dorchester contingent had offered to negotiate. But she said the likely harm to the crab population from easing the rule was deemed so great that the other restrictions the department would need to implement to offset it were “not attractive” to the watermen. Those alternatives included closing the crab season early, or starting later.
The DNR’s own Blue Crab Industry Advisory Committee, which includes watermen from around the Bay, recommended against the Dorchester-based pleas to change the minimum size rule. Charles County crabber Billy Rice, who chairs the DNR’ Tidal Fisheries Advisory Commission, said the department’s data showed that changing the minimum catchable size would harm the crab population, and would not bring watermen any overall economic benefit.
Davis’s firing, first reported Thursday by the Bay Journal, has drawn an outpouring of criticism on social media and elsewhere, including from some watermen who praised her willingness to work with them.
Davis was an “at-will” employee, meaning she served at the pleasure of superiors and did not enjoy the civil service protections of lower level state workers. But Pinsky contended she was one of the lowest-level at-will workers on the state payroll. He questioned why she couldn’t have been transferred to another position even if it meant removing her from oversight of the crab fishery.
Pinsky praised Davis’ long service to the state, noting she’d worked under Democratic and Republican administrations before. He said she had been treated “shabbily” by this administration.
“A few people come and complain, (and) push, she’s gone.”