Maryland lawmakers have scheduled a special hearing to investigate the Hogan administration’s firing of the state’s longtime manager of the blue crab fishery.
The House Environment and Transportation Committee and the Senate Education, Health, and Environmental Affairs Committee plan to meet jointly Monday to seek more information on the termination last month of Brenda Davis. A 28-year employee of the state Department of Natural Resources, Davis was dismissed Feb. 21 after a small group of watermen complained about her and crabbing regulations to Gov. Larry Hogan.
Sen. Paul Pinsky, a Prince George’s County Democrat, said the committees want to know whether politics is influencing science and scientific decision-making in the department.
"We have to shine a light on the firing of Brenda Davis,” Pinsky said Thursday. “It seems that the Hogan administration has made her a sacrificial lamb to a small group of watermen who have, to date, not been able to change state crabbing policy."
The hearing will begin at 2:30 p.m. Monday in the joint hearing room of the Legislative Services Building at 90 State Circle in Annapolis.
Pinsky called for the hearing after the Bay Journal first reported Davis’s termination. Davis said she was not given a reason, but her dismissal occurred a week after several Dorchester County watermen had a private meeting with Hogan.
The watermen had been trying for years to get DNR fishery managers to relax a regulation that restricts the size of crabs they can catch during most of the season, which runs from April 1 to Dec. 15.
Under longtime rules, the minimum catchable size for male crabs increases in mid-July from 5 inches across to 5.25 inches. The increase is based on scientists’ advice that it will give more males an opportunity to mate, enhancing reproduction and helping to sustain the population of the Chesapeake Bay’s most important fishery.
In the meeting with Hogan, the watermen complained that Davis had been inflexible, according to one participant. Though Davis oversaw the fishery, decisions on whether to change regulations are typically made by higher-level officials in the DNR.
A DNR spokesman declined to comment on Davis’ firing, saying it was a personnel issue, but added that such decisions are at the sole discretion of DNR Secretary Mark Belton.
DNR has not changed its policy on minimum crab sizes. Belton said the department has no plans to revisit crabbing regulations until managers can review the results of the annual winter dredge survey of the Bay crab population. Belton said he expects that report in early May.
Both Belton and Davis said they were contacted about testifying at the hearing. Neither confirmed they would be testifying.
Davis’ termination reverberated through the tightly knit scientific community that regulates crabs and the watermen who worked closely with her. Virginia scientist Rom Lipcius called it “unfair” and “shocking.” Lee Carrion, who co-owns Coveside Crabs, a Baltimore County business, called it “unjust” and “immoral.”
After reading the Bay Journal account of Davis’s firing, Pinsky said he had trouble sleeping, and denounced her treatment in a speech on the Senate floor.
Davis learned upon her termination that she would only receive 40 percent of her pension unless she finds another state job in the same pension system.
Hogan, a Republican, ran on a promise to end what he considered to be his predecessor’s “war on watermen.” His administration has made other personnel changes in fisheries management that had been sought by watermen, and has considered several policy changes that would benefit the industry, including opening some oyster sanctuaries.