The Maryland Department of Natural Resources has created a new position to handle the concerns of those who fish, oyster, clam and crab in Maryland waters.

George O’Donnell, a Queen Anne’s County native and longtime waterman, was named the department’s fisheries customer relations manager. O’Donnell was a two-term commissioner in Queen Anne’s County, where he served 1994–2002 with the new DNR secretary Mark Belton, who was the county administrator from 1999 to 2003.

Belton said he hired O’Donnell because “I know him, he knows me, and it’s easy for us to communicate.”

Belton said there was a need for the position because he’d been hearing from many watermen that the department wasn’t responsive to their concerns.

“There was a perception when I first became secretary — from watermen in part — that the department didn’t listen to their concerns. Not just didn’t do what they wanted, but didn’t listen,” Belton said.

Contentious issues included the decision to place fossilized shell from Florida in Harris Creek, part of a $25 million project to restore oysters. Dorchester County officials and many county watermen said the deposit amounted to a “dumping” and asked for a justification for the project. But the work continued. Watermen also complained about former Gov. Martin O’Malley’s plan to take 25 percent of the oyster bottom and put it into sanctuaries. That work also continues. And, watermen have pushed to open more areas of the Chesapeake Bay to power-dredging for oysters, to no avail. In an interview on Queen Anne’s County television, O’Donnell said his first priority was to deal with the sediment coming from above the Conowingo Dam. Next, he talked about “predation issues” and the cownose ray, which many watermen complain is eating the wild oyster and clam populations. Rays do not have a management plan. Meanwhile, hundreds of the fish have been killed during bow-fishing tournaments.

O’Donnell also talked about aquaculture and the conflicts between clammers and would-be oyster farmers, who wish to lease bottom in areas of the Bay where razor clams have historically lived.

“You have to be careful when you lease the water column because there are other uses that can occur there,” O’Donnell said.

In May, after the legislative session, Belton announced the departure of the DNR’s popular fisheries director, Tom O’Connell, as well as Deputy Secretary Frank Dawson, Communications Director Darlene Pisani and Assistant Secretary Kristin Saunders. At that time, he said, “Our focus is clearly on fiscal responsibility, economic expansion, reform and stakeholder inclusiveness.”

Belton has since named longtime state parks manager Daryl Anthony to Saunders’ position, which oversaw land resources. Stephen Schatz was named new communications director. The department named David Blazer fisheries director. Blazer most recently worked for the Maryland Port Administration.

O’Donnell will split his time between the main office in Annapolis and a satellite office in Matapeake.

David Sikorski, the government relations chairman for the Coastal Conservation Association, said he met with O’Donnell and was impressed.

“We really don’t know what his thoughts are. He has asked that we judge him by his future actions,” Sikorski said. “He has a big task placed upon his shoulders, but I feel he will be able to do it.”

Sikorski said that, from his group’s perspective, fisheries’ constituent services had been excellent. That’s because, Sikorski said, former fisheries director O’Connell was doing two jobs: managing the resource and managing constituents. O’Connell could be counted on to attend many night meetings and make calls from home in an effort to bring about compromises on tough issues.

Some recreational fishermen have grumbled that O’Donnell will be too pro-watermen, but Belton disagreed.

“I’m not going to let that happen,” he said. “It’s about balance. There are an awful lot of users in the Bay.”

O’Donnell and his fellow slate of commissioners were voted out of office after they approved unpopular developments in Queen Anne’s County, particularly around Kent Island, where O’Donnell lives. Residents formed a slow-growth group, the Kent Island Defense League, and put up candidates for commissioners. Those candidates prevailed at the ballot box. But after they lost the election, O’Donnell and two fellow commissioners signed an agreement that the Four Seasons development could go forward, even though voters had said the commissioners’ support for it was a major reason they voted them out.

The Four Seasons, an age-restricted community, remains in litigation. The latest issue is whether it can obtain a state wetlands permit to build more than a thousand homes on the northern part of Kent Island. If built, Four Seasons would be one of the largest developments in the critical area, which is designated as such because it is close to the shoreline and environmentally sensitive. About half of the proposed Four Seasons development sits in the critical area and includes wetlands that provide essential flood protection for the rest of the island.