The replacement of the chair and another member of a key Maryland fishery advisory body has surprised some observers and led others to question whether it’s political fallout from the firing a year ago of the state’s veteran blue crab fishery regulator.
Billy Rice, a widely respected Charles County waterman who since 2011 had been chairman of the Department of Natural Resources Tidal Fisheries Advisory Commission, learned last week that he’d been replaced.
And Rachel Dean, who with her husband runs a fishing business in Calvert County, learned in late December that she would not be reappointed to the commission, either. They were the only two seeking reappointment who were replaced on the 16-member panel, which advises the department on regulations and issues involving crabbing, oystering and other tidal fisheries.
Rice and Dean were also the only two panel members who publicly voiced their disagreement with the DNR’s dismissal last year of Brenda Davis, the longtime manager of its blue crab program. Davis was fired just days after Gov. Larry Hogan met with a group of Dorchester County watermen who complained that she was being inflexible about a crabbing regulation they wanted relaxed.
Rice at the time expressed his “great disappointment” over Davis’ firing in news articles and even testified in support of her at a legislative hearing looking into her removal. He and others at the hearing said the biologist had supported watermen on other issues and was being blamed in this case for enforcing a scientifically sound regulation, set by higher-ups in the department, which established a minimum size for crabs that could be legally caught.
Rice, who had been chairman of the advisory commission since the year he was appointed to it, was seeking another two-year term, and in January had been re-elected as its chair by other panel members. But on Feb. 21, he said he received a short letter from Hogan — ironically, the anniversary of Davis’ firing — which thanked him for his service and assured him that his replacement would do a good job.
Dean said she learned of her replacement in a phone call from the DNR in late December. Unlike Rice, she said she got no written acknowledgment of her service from the governor or anyone else.
“I’m disappointed my resume wasn’t enough for the governor to find me worthy of serving another term,” said Dean, who also serves on other DNR fishery advisory panels, and is secretary of the Calvert County watermen’s association.
Neither Rice nor Dean would say if they thought their outspokenness about Davis’s firing played a role in their removal from the tidal fishery commission. Dean did say she had questioned Davis’ firing last year because she believed that the DNR manager was just following the fishery management plan set for blue crabs.
But others said their removal from the fisheries advisory commission had the appearance of being some form of political punishment or payback.
“I can’t think of any other reason,” said Tom O’Connell, who had been the DNR’s fisheries director until May 2015, when he also was fired after some watermen had complained about him. Rice had voiced support for O’Connell as well, as had other watermen.
“He was a very vocal supporter of those that were removed from the department,” O’Connell said of Rice, “and I’m sure that has not gone over well from this administration.”
Emails to Dave Blazer, current DNR fisheries director, and to spokespeople for Hogan, who makes the appointments, went unanswered.
But Stephen Schatz, the DNR communications director, emailed a statement saying that “hearing from and listening to new expert voices is essential to the work” of the department and its fisheries advisory commission.
“When it come(s) to appointing or nominating members to various boards, commissions and councils, the Hogan administration remains committed to sitting a broad-range of representatives with diverse, refreshing and unique perspectives,” Schatz wrote. “As part of that commitment, the administration rotates representatives between boards and commissions to ensure that experts and stakeholders are distributed evenly so important (work) progresses. Same premise holds true for reappointments as well.”
Rice’s replacement on the tidal fisheries commission is Thomas “Bubby” Powley, a Dorchester waterman who had been among those seeking to relax the minimum size rule for crabs.
Under a long-standing DNR rule, watermen can harvest male crabs as small as five inches across from April 1, when the season opens, until July 14. After that, the minimum catchable size goes up to 5.25 inches, an increase advised by scientists to give them more time to reproduce and protect the Bay’s most valuable fishery from too much harvest pressure.
A group of Dorchester watermen and crab processors has been pressing unsuccessfully for years to do away with that increase in minimum size, contending there's a shortage of legal-sized crabs in their part of the Bay in midsummer. Watermen elsewhere in the Bay and the DNR’s advisory commissions opposed the change, and the minimum size rule did not get changed last year, even after Davis’s firing. The annual winter dredge survey of the Bay’s crab stock that spring found a low number of juvenile crabs, which led to a tightening rather than loosening of catch limits.
O’Connell called Rice “a gold star” and noted that he’s also served 22 years as one of Maryland’s representatives on the Potomac River Fisheries Commission, which regulates fishing on the mainstem tidal portion of that Bay tributary. Rice has been elected chairman of that bi-state body six times.
“If you talk about somebody with honesty and integrity and knowledge of Maryland’s fisheries issues," O'Connell said, "and willingness not to just represent the commercial fishermen viewpoint, but to sit down and work (with other interests) toward each other’s goals — you won’t find anyone better than Bill Rice.”
O’Connell praised Dean as well, saying that “she was among the most prepared commissioners that we had serving.”
Others also expressed disappointment at Rice’s loss from the tidal fisheries commission.
"Billy’s longstanding experience and dedication are an asset to the fisheries management system,” said David Sikorski, chairman of government relations for the Coastal Conservation Association Maryland, a sportfishing group at times at odds with watermen. “His willingness to always work through issues with opposing interests make him stand out in the crowd of those who are involved in helping manage our shared natural resources."
And Richard Young, a Baltimore County crabber, said he was dismayed by the shakeup.
“It’s a shame because both of them had the fisheries’ best interests at heart,” he said.
Until this week, Dean also had served since 2016 as a gubernatorially appointed member of the Atlantic States Marine Fisheries Commission, an interstate panel that oversees nearshore fishing along the East Coast from Maine to Florida. But she resigned the post, citing her “concerns for the disregard of balanced stakeholder input.”
Schatz said Dean’s resignation from the Atlantic States commission was a surprise “but we fully respect her choice.
“The Maryland Department of Natural Resources would like to thank both Billy and Rachel for their service and looks forward to working with them again on fisheries management and resource issues,” the DNR spokesman said.