Bay Journal

Maryland’s veteran crab manager fired after watermen complain to Hogan

Dorchester group sought easing of catch limit scientists say is needed to sustain the Bay's iconic crustacean

  • By Rona Kobell on February 22, 2017
  • Comments are closed for this article.
Longtime DNR crab program manager Brenda Davis was fired after a group of Dorchester County watermen complained to Gov. Larry Hogan about a catch limit they couldn't get the state agency to ease. 'It was a department decision,' she said. 'I just got to be the person to say it.' (Dave Harp)

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.”

About Rona Kobell

Rona Kobell is a former writer for the Baltimore Sun. .(JavaScript must be enabled to view this email address).

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Bruce cole on February 23, 2017:

She did a great job she was fair to the watermen and the bay it's time to stop crying and do the right thing and I hope she gets her job back. Bruce Cole a waterman

John Murphy on February 23, 2017:

I don't think the limits hurt anything. Makes for a bigger crab and better for the market. And the hoopers Island and Dorchester areas had a great year in 2016. Leave it be.

Amory J Proctor on February 23, 2017:

It's never to late to right a wrong Governor Hogan. Someone should take another look at the decision made to fire Brenda Davis and right what appears to be a shooting of the messenger type situation. Tenure in such a job should be valued, not thrown away in this manner.

Capt Jim on February 23, 2017:

The problem with large male crabs is their shells are so thick and hard to break that they cut your hands when you eat them.

Dave on February 23, 2017:

Who wants a 5 inch crab? Leave it 51/4. A 5 five inch crab is not worth picking.

Ron on February 23, 2017:

Note to self: Stop buying crabs from Dorchester County watermen.

Peter Burling on February 23, 2017:

How many years will it be before these watermen can't find any crabs....what then? And excuse me, when did their interests surpass those of the rest of us? Governor Hogan, rethink what you've done. spirit61

Barbara Joyce on February 23, 2017:

Brenda Davis has always been an extremely dedicated employee of the MD DNR Fisheries Service. I am also a huge fan of Gov. Larry Hogan. As a Retiree from the MD DNR Wildlife and Heritage Service, I guess I should not be surprised at something like the happening. However, I am very disappointed, especially now. This lady, who has used sound science and who has fostered a good relationship with the crabbing industry, to be just released from her position with no other options and only 2 yrs. from retirement, is unacceptable. I can say this now for I don't work there anymore and I don't believe there is anything they can do to me. Sad, isn't it. Come on Dorchester County. You just shot the messenger. Hope you are happy.

Meredith on February 23, 2017:

This firing was unfair. Our Governor should stop searching for the bright shiny object and depend on the reason for these regulations . Plus I honestly believe that the fact she was a woman made her an easy target for the Governor. The gentlemen involved did not lose their jobs.

James Greene on February 23, 2017:

Why does sustainability have to be the enemy of extraction? Why should a relative handful of commercial crabbers put at risk the future of our already limited blue crab population? Fairness would be for the governor to find out what recreational crabbers and others concerned about Bay health have to say about current crabbing protocols before swinging an axe at the messenger.

Ron on February 23, 2017:

The waterman are also lobbying to harvest oyster sanctuaries where volunteer groups are restoring the oyster population. If the governor wants to support relaxation of environmentally and economically short sighted protective measures for crabs and oysters, he needs to take personal accountability for the changes being taken. Firing DNR enforcement managers is inappropriate.

Mike on February 23, 2017:

This is a classic case of what happens when government officials are brought and sold. No consideration for 28 years. Fire the governor with the vote.

Brian flaugher on February 23, 2017:

Mrs. Davis was a terrific person and a true asset to this industry. Her knowledge in this feild can't be replaced. if governor Hogan is trying to help the waterman abroad this is not the way to do it by the crying of a few. hope he will right the wrong.

Andrew Marani on February 23, 2017:

Decisions, decisions... Hmm... Listen to the scientists that have been studying this problem for many years and have a solid handle on the management, or listen to some watermen that want to catch larger crabs. I know!! Let's fire the employee that tells the watermen the DNR's decision. Shows we are doing something to help out the watermen, but we can still listen to the scientists. Brilliant!!!!

Rick R on February 23, 2017:

They just want to sell to picking houses . They need to let you pick a time if you want to fish pots in the PM .

Michaela E Clancy on February 23, 2017:

We all need to contact our Gov & ask to have this issue re-evaluated. There is no reason why Brenda Davis should have been fired for doing her job. This just doesn't pass the "stink" test. Leave the size at 5 1/4" and give the bay & the crabs more time to rebound?

Cyn Kamm on February 23, 2017:

This sounds highly illogical and seems she was dismissed without cause. So, either someone does a better job of explaining what happened, or Hogan reverses the decision with a huge apology, or as a last resort, I hope she pursues proper avenues to get her job back.

grew up crabbing on February 23, 2017:

It is so sad and shortsighted that they want to kill the goose. Someone needs to stand up for the next generation if the people who's own livelihood depends on it won't. Please reinstate Ms. Davis. Firing a person for doing their job impartially is not the answer.

Susan Haddox on February 23, 2017:

I don not agree with this decision. Mrs. Davis had worked hard to keep our crabbing industry afloat working closely with the watermen and collecting pertinent data over those 28 years. How can this happen, a good employee close to retirement and obviously loved her job. Come on Governor Hogan grease those wheels and make this right, giver her back her job!

Bill Scerbo on February 23, 2017:

Been to many meetings with Brenda, I remember when the size regs were being discussed I told her that the new regs would create a hardship for watermen in the lower bay. She told me " she wasn't payed to worry about watermen ,she was payed to worry about crabs". Yes she may have been the messenger ,she may have known her stuff when it came to crabs but now she will experience how a cold government desicion feels.

Liz Harward on February 23, 2017:

So these crabbers got what they wanted. Great job! I hope you fish the crabs into oblivion and lose your livelihood, I don't care about you Dorchester crabbers any longer. You will get what you deserve, those pesky facts about population and sustainability.

Nell breen on February 23, 2017:

I agree with all of the comments already put forth. How can you fire a person for doing there job? I hope the governor will reconsider this decision and look hard ato the decision to open any of the existing oyster sanctuaries if you are truly a conservative you will conserve our environment.

Fran Clark on February 23, 2017:

The crabs have been better then they have been the last couple of years. Who wants to try and pick a 5 inch crab? Not anyone I know. Let DNR and Ms. Davis do their jobs and stop listening to a couple whiny crabbers.

K Carlin on February 23, 2017:

I wrote to Director Dave Blazer and will call his office tomorrow. You can too! Brenda deserves to be reinstated or at least transferred to another position. She was only doing her job. I want him to know a greedy minority cannot ruin it for everyone else. I also wrote to the Governor. DNR Fisheries Service, Tawes State Office Building B2, 580 Taylor Avenue, Annapolis, MD 21401 410 260-8281, .(JavaScript must be enabled to view this email address)

J Smith on February 23, 2017:

In our new reality, decisions are not made based on science and evidence. No worries - now that the EPA is slated to be dissolved, the DNR won't be far behind. And when our rivers and bays are polluted with the runoff from factories and mines, the only crabs to catch will be dead ones. Who will be happy then? Will a 1/4 inch really matter?

Capt on February 23, 2017:

One thing not mentioned is that those size rules also apply to recreational crabbers, of which I am one. Those crabs and oysters belong to all of us, not just the commercial crabbers and I view this as just another example of watermen trying to grab all they can and not thinking about anyone else or even their own future. This shortsighted narrative is how we got into this mess with our Chesapeake Bay resources in the first place. How many more people need to get fired for doing their job before we make a stand.

Melinda R on February 23, 2017:

My comment pertains to this quote in the article by Scott Todd: “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.” There are only 5,000 more or less crab licenses issued in the entire State of Maryland, and of those only about 1,800 are active. Even fewer yet are from Dorchester County/Lower Bay where he claims that livelihoods are affected. Therefore, Mr. Todd's grievance does not reflect this large number. These kinds of statements are unfair and misleading. fakenews

Mark Misener on February 23, 2017:

We should not ask the Fox how many chickens her should kill. I spent many nights @ DNR public hearings and the common statement from commercial crabers was "I'll stop crabing when l take the last crab" size limits work it should be increased to 5 1/2" they would need less to make more money Thanks

Patty Damron on February 23, 2017:

So sad a woman doing her job and loses her job. Governor is sounding and acting like our dictator President Trump because a group of men whined to get their way how come no me lost their jobs. It's a sad day!

Scott Sewell on February 23, 2017:

This is just plain wrong in so many ways. I'm sure that Brenda Davis has contributed tremendous accomplishments to all Marylander's over her 28 year career. To flat out fire her is unconscionable!Surely she could be reassigned to another area in DNR to finish her career and receive her retirement. I hope Governor Hogan will correct this injustice.

George Welling on February 24, 2017:

Don't just comment here! Call Governor Hogan's office 410-974-3901, and ask him to reconsider.

Peter cane on February 24, 2017:

I called the Gov's office expressing my dissatisfaction with this action. spoke to Megan, she was surprised at the firing, expressing the opinion that the paper might not have told the whole story - sure. Says she'll call me back with moire info. If she does I'll post it. Peter

Captain Margie on February 24, 2017:

Governor Hogan, Reinstate Mrs. Davis. She was only doing her job. How can you bow to a few greedy watermen who want to influence you when the science has shown our crabs are STARTING to recover.space85

JAMES on February 24, 2017:


M.A. Cancil on February 24, 2017:

Governor Hogan - Please rethink this dismissal and right this wrong. My husband chooses not consume Bay crabs as he fears he may be eating the last crab. A bit exaggerated but he makes a point.

Suzanne Lyon on February 24, 2017:

Not only should she be reinstated it seems the governor did not even get the facts or consult the person who he had fired. She was not who made the decision she was just delivering the results! After 28 years of working for the government she should not only be reinstated but she deserves an apology and the ability to transfer to another division or position . Please increase patrolling in Dorchester County Maryland these men obviously do not care about the danger to the crab population or they would want to protect their livelyhood by not over harvesting. I hope the people buying crabs in Maryland are able to find out where and who caught the crabs so they can avoid any caught in Dorchester County by these watermen! Please ask at restaurants and when buying crabs so these watermen don't profit by their irresponsible behavior.

Cindy jones on February 24, 2017:

My husband was a hard shell clamer in the coastal bay of Worcester County. He worked at this job for 15 yrs. When Jim Mathis got in office in the O'Malley adm. they made their brags that they were going to close the bottom down, not only did they close it down and could not tell why only that they could and would. Mathis answer to my husband not having a job no more was "Go get another job". So ms Davis my suggestion for you is GO GET ANOTHER JOB......try

Bryan M. Barthelme on February 25, 2017:

The Governor needs to go. This kind of political power play only hurts the residents of Maryland. I wonder what the watermen have on him? Must be pretty bad to force such an insane decision. When our politicians make bad choices for personal gain, it's time to go. As a resident of Maryland, you work for me governor Hogan. Guess what? Your fired! PS: When all the crabs are gone, this will be Hogan's legacy. May we always remember him as "The man who shot the messenger"

Rona Kobell on February 25, 2017:

I'm the reporter who wrote the article. Thank you, everyone, for your comments. I appreciate them all. I would like to respond to two points: To Melinda - It might have been good for me to add a sentence explaining that, while Mr. Todd was referencing the number of people who have crabbing licenses, a smaller number make their living crabbing, and a much smaller number than that make their living crabbing in Dorchester. We were doing this story on deadline, and there are always many moving parts. BUT, leaving out the context i just stated does not make this "fake news" in any way, shape or form. Fake news is a made-up story. This is not a made-up story. Mr. Todd said that quote. I reported it. He has not denied saying that quote. And to Peter - Megan in the governor's office suggested the paper might not have told the whole story? Did Megan in the governor's office share with you that I called the governor's office and emailed them the day the story was running, and gave them a final chance to comment at 7 p.m. that night when they didn't return my call or email? And also that I tried for two days to get an official comment out of DNR? If the governor's office had something to say, they had an opportunity to say it - and then another opportunity, when Tim Wheeler did his follow-up, and a third opportunity, when the Post did a story that largely credited our work (thanks, Washington Post). At no point in the past three days has anyone from the governor's office suggested the story was incomplete. But if Megan from the governor's office would like to call us and tell us what we missed, all of my contact information is online. I will be happy to talk to Megan, or anyone else.

Wye River on February 25, 2017:

This smells like a week old dead crab. Obviously Davis was an appointee because it's very difficult to fire a state employee. In the land of politics she bit a hand trying to fill a position from a campaign favor. 5 1/4" is OK by me like stated above the market demands larger crabs and they pay the bills faster. If they want to help the waterman, let the pleasure boaters catch 1 bushel, charge $200 for a recreational crab license, a $100 for a ramp permit and make the recreational's hours from one hour after sunrise to dusk.

Rose Ann on February 26, 2017:

I don't understand why she was fired. I think she should fight it. This sounds fishy! We don't want to buy little crabs. They're not worth the trouble. Come on Hogan...what's the deal?

Jb Tieder on February 26, 2017:

Bad situation many factors each side. Not a simple solution. Sometimes change is good. Sometimes bad. What it makes is history. Learn and keep an open mind.

Dale Valentine on February 27, 2017:

Me thinks there is more to the story than what we are being told. It would be nice to hear the rest of the story.

barb matusky on February 27, 2017:

Please give this woman her job back this was a bad decision

s sterling on March 01, 2017:

good riddance

DuWayne Potter on March 05, 2017:

Bump it up to 6". Need to do something before they are all gone

Deirdre Smith on March 08, 2017:

Thank you for this reporting and your follow up comments. Please call Governor Hogan to express your opinion. 410-974-3901 We have to speak up.

B Schenck on March 10, 2017:

Seems like a case of the government trying to pick winners and losers... The Chesapeake Bay is a resource for the entire state and all waterman, not just a single county or group of watermen. Having policy cater to a small group, potentially to the expense of others (by giving the smaller group a competitive advantage) is despicable. I get the desires of the watermen here, but if the data shows that there would be a problem with the policy... The administration shouldn't be firing someone to "fix" the policy. Find another solution that works and doesn't damage this public resource or pander to a small group of watermen.

Gretel James on March 14, 2017:

This is a frightening threat to freedom.

Margaret Wilmot on March 16, 2017:

Rather than repeat all the excellent --and frankly overriding-- environmental impact comments here, I would like to ask: At the very, very least, show me the logic of firing someone for upholding very clear, written policy? Tell me, Governor Hogan, is it your plan to replace Ms. Davis with someone who will NOT follow DNR policy? If not, what exactly was your purpose beyond what appears to be political placating? I would love to know before the next election. As much as I appreciated your principled stand vis a vis the Republican convention, this situation is not looking good to this voter. We all make mistakes of judgment. Please correct this one quickly. I'd like to see you on Maryland's side, not that of an outspoken but small special interest. (And a little logic would be encouraging too.)

R. Kohn on March 25, 2017:

Hogan has no respect for science or the environment. Please come back to reality Republican Party.

vinny on April 13, 2017:

Capt Jim Big crabs will hurt your hands!!!! Are you for real. I would rather cut my hands on a big crab and get old bay and salt in it than pick a 5"crab. You must be in it for the money. We need to protect the harvest for the future.

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