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Lawmakers question firing of blue crab manager

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State lawmakers are questioning the decision by Gov. Larry Hogan’s administration to fire the long-time manager of the state’s blue crab program. State House and Senate committees grilled administration officials over the dismissal at a joint hearing Monday.

Brenda Davis, a biologist and a 28-year veteran of the state Department of Natural Resources, was the manager of the department’s blue crab program until five days ago. She says that on Feb. 21, her boss fired her without telling her why.

“It was more than a shock,” she said. “I have never been told by any of my supervisors that I should be doing something differently.”

During a trip to the Eastern Shore the previous week, Hogan met with a group of watermen from Dorchester County. According to multiple media reports, the watermen raised concerns about the state’s crab harvesting regulations and about Davis’s opposition to extending the season for harvesting crabs that have not yet grown past five inches.

“The request to extend the harvest of the five-inch crabs has been fairly consistent over the last two or three years,” Davis said.

Del. Jay Jacobs, a Republican who represents four counties on the Eastern Shore, told the committees on Monday that it’s something only watermen from Somerset and Dorchester counties want changed.

“The rest of the state is adamantly opposed to five-inch crabs,” he said. “That issue’s been brought up many times at the watermen’s caucus meeting.”

The blue crab program tried last year to come up with some options to work with the watermen from the Lower Shore while still protecting the crab population in the Bay, Davis said. But the watermen didn’t like the options.

“The members of the crab committee from the Lower Eastern Shore made it no secret that they thought that I was very difficult to work with,” Davis said.

At Monday’s hearing, Sen. Paul Pinsky, the vice-chair of the Senate Education, Health and Environmental Affairs Committee, asked Department of Natural Resources Secretary Mark Belton and Hogan Deputy Chief of Staff Jeannie Haddaway-Riccio about the timing of Davis’ dismissal, roughly a week after the watermen complained.

“Isn’t it true that since you couldn’t give these watermen what they wanted, a change in crab policy, you gave them something else, Brenda Davis’ job?” Pinsky asked.

Haddaway-Riccio, who oversees natural resources-related issues for Hogan and was at the February meeting, repeatedly declined to answer questions about the meeting, and both she and Belton declined to discuss the decision to fire Davis, saying it’s a personnel matter.

But Belton said that since Hogan took office two years ago, the Department of Natural Resources has tried to listen more to watermen’s voices, which he said former Gov. Martin O’Malley’s administration ignored.

“These hardworking men and women were denied their rightful voice on important decisions that matter greatly to them,” Belton said. “The previous administration seemed to discount their opinions and their insight, which was forged over generations on work boats out on the Chesapeake Bay and its many tributaries.”

Two watermen came to Davis’ defense Monday afternoon.

“Politics has no place in fishery management,” said Gibby Dean, a waterman from Dorchester County and the former president of the Chesapeake Bay Commercial Fishermen’s Association. “Fishery management should be based on science, not votes.”

Several Republican legislators argued that point. They noted that Davis was an at-will employee, whose tenure at the department could change with leadership.

But Davis emphasized that she is a scientist, and her dismissal sent a message.

“The scientific community around the Bay sees it as a sign that science is no longer going to be a major part of the decision-making process for management of the Bay,” Davis said. “Other Natural Resources professionals are afraid to do their jobs. … People want to be voluntarily demoted so they’re no longer in an at-will position.”

Belton assured the legislators that science continues to inform the department’s decisions.

Rachel Baye is a senior reporter and editor in WYPR's newsroom.
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