Fired crab manager was not at war with watermen

"It's not hoodoo voodoo that we pull out of a black bag," says fired crab scientist.

Brenda Davis, until two weeks ago manager of Maryland's blue crab program, was the one who straightened me out about a moratorium. I had advocated closing down the Chesapeake Bay crab harvest for at least a year, until I heard her careful explanations why a moratorium was not necessary — and would probably do more harm than good.

By 2014, harvests were in decline again, and the winter surveys indicated more problems ahead. The number of female crabs had dropped below the level scientists believed necessary to sustain the overall population. And, despite brief periods when crabs made a comeback, there had been all sorts of grim warnings since the 1990s: The Chesapeake Bay Foundation characterized the blue crab population as "perilously close to collapse." The regional Chesapeake Bay Program said the crab stock had been "fully exploited."

So I renewed my call for a moratorium, and offered it in a Bawlmer accent: "Leave the crabs Ay-lone!"

Maryland had imposed a five-year moratorium on the rockfish harvest back in the 1980s, and that fishery came back strong. Certainly a one-year ban on crabbing was bound to have a positive effect.

Makes sense, right?

But my degree is not in marine biology and science. Brenda Davis' is.

Until two weeks ago, when she was told her services were no longer needed, Davis was the crab program manager for the Maryland Department of Natural Resources for about 10 years. She had joined the state's corps of crab overseers in 1988, during Maryland's first winter dredge survey. So Davis had been employed by the state, in one capacity or another, for 28 years, all with a concentration on crab science.

When I challenged her claim that a moratorium would not be effective, she did what she has done countless times over the years: She explained things.

First of all, she said, my rockfish comparison did not work because, while blue crabs live three and sometimes four years, rockfish live much longer — three decades, in some cases — and they produce more eggs as they age. She described blue crab lifespan and fertility rates, mortality rates, how crabs migrate, how severe winter weather affects them, and how an abundance of crabs creates competition for food and habitat, leading to diminishing returns as their population grows.

So, with nothing positive guaranteed from a moratorium, Davis argued convincingly that a complete ban on the harvest would do more harm than good; it would put watermen out of work while accomplishing little biologically.

As you can see, Davis took into account the potential effect of her recommendations on the commercial crabbers. It's not like she was their enemy. How could someone who opposed a one-year crabbing moratorium be at war with watermen?

As Davis said Friday from her home on Eastern Shore, her management of the fishery was based not on market demands alone, and certainly not on politics, but on science.

"It's not hoodoo voodoo that we pull out of a black bag," she said.

Davis' dismissal in late February was first reported by the Chesapeake Bay Journal, which connected her firing to a meeting the previous week with Gov. Larry Hogan and some Dorchester County watermen who have been upset with Davis' reluctance to reduce the minimum catchable size for male crabs during the summer season.

On Friday, Davis said she had heard about that meeting and the complaint. She's heard plenty of complaints from watermen, including the Dorchester group, over the years — "It's a jugular issue for these guys, I get that," she said — but she said she was given no explicit reason for her dismissal on Feb. 21.

And she did not see it coming. Asked to describe her surprise on a scale of 1 to 10, Davis said, "About a 15."

Neither the governor's office nor the DNR responded on Friday to requests for explanations for Davis' dismissal.

But her firing has some bay advocates upset because it smells of politics over science.

"Ms. Davis was simply implementing state policy," said Sen. Paul Pinsky, vice chairman of the committee that handles environmental issues. "For the governor to placate these unhappy watermen by summarily dismissing a hard-working employee is unconscionable." Pinsky called on Hogan to reinstate Davis.

Gerald Winegrad, the feisty former state senator long active in bay restoration, warned that Davis' dismissal "sends a chilling message" to other employees of the DNR.

"It takes a page from the Trump play book: disregard the facts, act on political impulse and cater to those who catered to your election," Winegrad said.

And Bill Goldsborough, until last fall the senior fisheries scientist for the Chesapeake Bay Foundation, said Davis had "worked directly with watermen to understand and incorporate their views." Her dismissal, he said, "clearly demonstrates a dismissive attitude toward science-based management in favor of old-fashioned political management."

Added Goldsborough: "If I was a tweeter, I would say, 'SAD!'"

drodricks@baltsun.com

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