A Virginia crab scientist and some watermen have joined conservationists and a Maryland lawmaker in expressing concern over the firing of Maryland’s veteran overseer of the blue crab fishery. 

Those speaking out said they feared the termination of Brenda Davis, crab program manager for the Department of Natural Resources, indicated that the Hogan administration is politicizing the management of the state’s fisheries and ignoring science to appease watermen.

“To be fired for trying to do your best to manage the fishery in a way to affect the watermen’s livelihoods the least, while ensuring the long-term sustainability of the species, to me it’s unfair, and it’s shocking,” said Rom Lipcius, a Virginia crab scientist who serves on the Chesapeake Bay Program committee that monitors the Baywide population of the iconic crustacean.

Davis, a 28-year-state employee, said she was summarily dismissed Feb. 22 with no explanation, a decision that she says means she will only be able to collect 40 percent of her pension.

About a dozen Dorchester County watermen had met with Gov. Larry Hogan the previous week, according to one of those present, and they complained about Davis and the DNR’s unwillingness to ease a regulation setting the minimum catchable size for crabs.

Under rules in effect since 2001, the smallest crab that can be caught legally increases in mid-July from 5 inches across 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.

State fisheries managers, acting on scientific advice, had declined to make the change. Davis, whose job entailed close contact with the watermen, was the one to deliver the message.

The Dorchester group have complained for years that the bump-up in minimum size hurts their livelihood, as many of the crabs are smaller that time of year in their area. They complained to Hogan that Davis and DNR officials had been inflexible; Davis and others, though, said it was the Dorchester watermen who had been unwilling earlier to agree to any meaningful tradeoffs in catch restrictions that would have ensured the crab population remained sustainable.

Hogan’s office declined to comment on the firing. DNR spokesman Stephen Schatz said the department does not comment on personnel issues, but noted they are decided at the “sole discretion” of Natural Resources Secretary Mark Belton.  He added that the agency prioritizes “enhancing and improving customer engagement” as well as science-based conservation and management of natural resources.

Hogan, a Republican, vowed during his campaign for governor to end what he called his predecessor’s “war on watermen,”

But Davis’ firing has been criticized by some in the seafood industry, even though they said they risked being ostracized for breaking ranks in public.

Lee Carrion and Richard Young, who own Coveside Crabs in Dundalk, said they met with Sen. Johnny Ray Salling, a Republican representing their community, to explain Davis’ role in managing the fishery and her importance. The couple has been posting supportive messages about Davis on their Facebook page.

“That was so unjust, and frankly, in my mind, it’s immoral. She had done such a great job in balancing so many factions, and to be dismissed like that, that’s a travesty. Who does that to someone after a 28-year career?” Carrion asked. “You can’t eradicate the science just because you don’t like it, and that appears to be happening.”

Salling did not return calls and emails seeking comment. Neither did Eastern Shore senators Adelaide Eckardt or Stephen Hershey, both Republicans, or James Mathias, a Democrat.

Maryland Watermen’s Association President Robert T. Brown acknowledged that some of his members were upset by Davis’ dismissal, but said he wouldn’t have a comment until he consulted his board.

Coastal Conservation Association - Maryland, which represents recreational fishermen, put out a statement saying they were “deeply concerned” about Davis’ firing.

Sen. Paul Pinsky, one of the General Assembly’s leading environmental advocates, used legislators’ “personal privilege” to make a five-minute statement about Davis’ firing on the Senate floor Feb. 24. He said he found the firing “personally abominable” and urged the governor to reinstate Davis with an apology. Pinsky, a Prince George’s County Democrat, said he invoked the rarely used privilege because Davis’ dismissal made him so angry he could not sleep. 

“That the administration would pander to these people and sacrifice this woman who had given so much to the state, no employer should act that way,” Pinsky said. “She was a committed employee. She worked based on science. What happened to her was infuriating.”

Davis said in an interview that she expects to receive a much smaller pension than she would have been eligible for had she continued to work another two years. Though at DNR for 28 years, she was on a contract basis for her first five. She said she might still be able to earn a full pension if she finds other employment covered by the state retirement system.

There have been other personnel and policy changes at DNR at the behest of watermen, Carrion and Young pointed out.  Another longtime DNR employee, fisheries director Thomas O’Connell, was fired in 2015, and the department’s shellfish program manager, Michael Naylor, was transferred.  Watermen had complained about both.

DNR Secretary Belton also asked the U.S. Army Corps of Engineers to hold up a federally funded oyster restoration project in the Tred Avon River on the Eastern Shore after watermen met with Lt. Gov. Boyd Rutherford to air complaints about such restoration.  After a year, the project was eventually re-started.  Responding to appeals from watermen, the DNR has since announced it is considering opening up some of the state’s extensive network of oyster sanctuaries to commercial harvest.

Blue crabs are the Bay’s most valuable fishery, and landings by Maryland watermen – which reached 26.7 million pounds in 2015, the most recent year for which figures are available –  have a cumulative dockside value of tens of millions of dollars.

But in 2008, the crab population and harvest dipped so low that the federal government issued a disaster declaration for the fishery, and Maryland and Virginia regulators alike imposed tighter catch limits on watermen, aimed primarily at protecting females so they could reproduce and rebuild the stock. Crab numbers have rebounded to more sustainable levels since then.

The DNR has not announced any changes to the minimum size limits for crabs. The move is opposed by the department’s own advisory bodies, which include watermen and others in the seafood industry.

Charles County crabber Billy Rice, who chairs the DNR’s Tidal Fisheries Advisory Commission, said the annual winter dredge survey data showed that changing the minimum catchable size would harm the crab population, and would not bring watermen any overall economic benefit. The DNR’s Blue Crab Industry Advisory Committee, which includes Young, recommended against the Dorchester-based pleas to change the size rule because the panel’s majority concluded that conservation givebacks to compensate for it, such as starting crabbing season later or ending it sooner, would hurt the whole industry, Davis said.

In a memo to her supervisor, Fisheries Director Dave Blazer, long before her firing, Davis outlined the harm for even a 17-day smaller-size extension. July is a busy time for commercial crabbers, with about 15 times the daily volume that the fishery has in April. The number of recreational crabbers, who are also governed by the size limit, ramps up as well.  Thus, Davis wrote, even a short extension of the 5-inch minimum size could have “a surprisingly large impact on the blue crab harvest.”