Maryland’s veteran manager of the state’s blue crab fishery was fired this week after a group of watermen complained to Gov. Larry Hogan about a catch regulation that they contend hurts their livelihood — but that scientists say is needed to ensure a sustainable harvest.
Brenda Davis, crab program manager for the Department of Natural Resources and a 28-year state employee, said she was informed Tuesday that her services were no longer needed.
In an interview Wednesday, Davis said Fisheries Director Dave Blazer gave no reason for her summary dismissal. But it came after Hogan met last week with about a dozen Dorchester County watermen who had been pressing Davis and the DNR for a change in a long-time regulation setting the minimum catchable size for crabs.
“I was totally shocked. It was totally unexpected,” Davis said yesterday. “I was really surprised and a bit disappointed given my time there that re-assignment wasn’t an option, because I think I’m going to be short on being able to do full retirement.”
A spokeswoman for the governor declined to comment. A DNR spokesman likewise said officials would not comment on a personnel matter.
For the last two years, a small but vocal group of Maryland watermen in lower Dorchester County have been asking DNR managers to allow the catch of smaller male crabs. The department has the flexibility to change regulations if conditions warrant, and they rely on an annual winter dredge survey of crabs to determine the size of the crab population and how much fishing pressure it might sustain.
The smaller crab size is part of a suite of restrictions in effect since 2001, Davis said, when managers sought to reduce crabbing effort by 15 percent because the population was showing strain. During the first part of crabbing season, watermen can legally harvest male crabs if their pointed shells are at least 5 inches across from tip to tip. That minimum size is in effect from April 1, when the season opens, until July 14. On July 15, the minimum catchable size increases to 5 ¼ inches.
That seemingly slight increase gives male crabs more time in the water to molt and grow. It also significantly increases their chances of mating with female crabs so they can sustain the Bay’s population of the iconic crustacean, according to Tom Miller, a crab scientist who is director of the Chesapeake Biological Laboratory at the University of Maryland Center for Environmental Science.
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, and some of the restrictions have been eased.
Dorchester watermen have lobbied both the DNR and the governor’s office for the 5-inch change. Davis said the Dorchester contingent said it was willing to negotiate, but the likely harm to the crab population from easing the rule was deemed so great that the options the department would need to implement to offset the impact were “not attractive.” They included closing the crab season early, or starting later. The Dorchester watermen were not interested, she said.
When Hogan met with the group of about a dozen watermen last week, they again expressed their disappointment. Scott Todd, a leader in the Dorchester County watermen community and second vice president of the Maryland Watermen’s Association, attended the meeting. He said the watermen told the governor that the DNR, and Davis in particular, were not willing to meet them even part way.
Todd said the male size regulation was “devastating” to watermen in Dorchester County, because smaller crabs are the only ones running in their area that time of year.
He said they had offered to accept some sort of compromise, such as letting watermen continue catching 5-inch crabs for another six weeks, until the end of August. And then they dropped the request to just four weeks. Again, Todd said, the answer was no. It was, he said, “just one continual bang your head meeting against another.”
Todd said the governor seemed surprised about the rancor, but “he just said, ‘I’m listening.’”
Hogan, a Republican, had run on a pledge to end what he called his Democratic predecessor’s “war on watermen,” and has made changes in the past based on their concerns. With watermen calling for change when Hogan took office, the administration shook up the DNR, reassigning the manager of the department’s oyster fishery and restoration efforts and firing the fisheries director. Watermen had complained about both.
Then in late 2015, three watermen met with Maryland Lt. Gov. Boyd Rutherford to complain about a federally funded oyster reef restoration project in the Tred Avon River on the Eastern Shore. Natural Resources Secretary Mark Belton subsequently asked the U.S. Army Corps of Engineers to hold up the project while DNR staff reviewed it and other restoration efforts. After a year, the project was eventually restarted.
Todd said in an interview that he thought that the Dorchester watermen had offered reasonable compromises.
“I never had anything personal against Brenda,” Todd said. “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.”
The DNR has not announced any changes to the minimum size limits.
Charles County crabber Billy Rice, who chairs the DNR’s Tidal Fisheries Advisory Commission and has been involved in blue crab policy for decades, said the data from the annual winter dredge survey showed that changing the minimum catchable size would harm the crab population, and would not bring watermen any overall economic benefit. Many watermen like harvesting larger crabs, because they fetch better prices and more income.
The DNR’s Blue Crab Industry Advisory Committee, which includes watermen, recommended against the Dorchester-based pleas to change the rule because the conservation givebacks required to make up the difference were so extreme they would have harmed the whole industry, Davis said.
In an interview Wednesday, Rice said he sent an email to Hogan’s deputy chief of staff, Jeannie Haddaway-Riccio, expressing his “great disappointment” at Davis’s firing. He said Davis went above and beyond to help commercial watermen and processors.
“Brenda was a great person, and a great employee, and this was a simply a case of shooting the messenger,” Rice said.
Thomas O’Connell, the fisheries director who was fired in 2015, said in his experience at the DNR, any decision on whether to change crabbing regulations would have to be approved by Davis’s supervisors, including the current fisheries chief, Blazer, and the DNR secretary.
O’Connell said Davis “brought an incredible level of transparency to blue crab management.” The winter dredge survey numbers don’t come out until April, which is late to make changes for the season because it begins April 1.
So, he said, Davis would begin to meet with the industry while the survey was progressing, and ask them what they would like to see if the population reached certain targets. It allowed them to manage based on their preferences should there be an abundance, within reason, and prescribe the pain that might be coming if there was a shortage. On the table were issues such as size, gear and length of day. It took a lot of time and required a lot of night meetings and occasionally long drives, O’Connell said, but Davis was always willing to do it.
“I have observed her commitment and sacrifices over the years to ensure that Maryland blue crabs are managed sustainably,” O’Connell said. “And then a couple of watermen can have a meeting with the governor and turn around and really screw up her life.”
Asked about her greatest accomplishment in 28 years at DNR, Davis said it’s been the relationship she helped build with the crabbing industry through the dredge survey and data-sharing.
“That survey put us on the watermen’s boats, and we have fostered a much better relationship with the industry. They have a much better understanding of what we do, and we have a much better understanding of what they do,” she said.
Of the minimum crab size rule, she added: “It was a department decision. I just got to be the person to say it.”