Menhaden

This is a detail of a box of frozen menhaden. (Barbara Haddock Taylor, Baltimore Sun / October 28, 2011)

The Senate delayed a vote Friday to confirm Gov. Martin O’Malley’s natural resources secretary after the head of the Maryland Watermen’s Association accused acting Secretary Joseph P. Gill of threatening his members’ livelihood.

Sen. Richard F. Colburn, a Republican representing the middle Eastern Shore, asked that the vote be put off until Feb. 14 over the allegedly threatening remark.

Robert T. Brown Sr., the watermen’s association leader, told lawmakers Gill warned him Wednesday that if a regulatory bill opposed by the group didn’t pass, DNR would cut commercial catch quotas.

“I will hurt you. Did you hear me? I will hurt you,” Brown said Gill told him.

In an interview, Gill, who was named acting secretary last May, denied threatening Brown or the watermen. He said he was trying to warn that if his department didn’t get the regulatory flexibility the bill was intended to clarify, the state would have to be very conservative with how many fish, crabs or oysters could be caught. If that happens, he added, “the result would only hurt the watermen.”

The bill would authorize DNR to open and close fishing seasons and alter catch limits with as little as 48 hours’ notice. Watermen unhappy over the state’s recent handling of striped bass and menhaden quotas contend the bill would cede too much power to the department. Some watermen have filed suit challenging limits placed last year on catching menhaden.

Brown stood by his version of Gill’s remarks, which he said were made in his wife’s presence. Gill later wrote Brown a letter seeking to clarify his remarks and offering an apology for how Brown took them.

Colburn said he’s requested a meeting to discuss Gill with Jeanne D. Hitchcock, O’Malley’s appointments secretary, and John R. Griffin, his chief of staff and former natural resources secretary. Several other senators, including President Thomas V. Mike Miller, joined Colburn in expressing concern over the alleged remarks.

“You know, cabinet secretaries are supposed to have some experience in dealing with the public,’’ Miller said.  While saying he respects Gill and supported his nomination, he counseled Gill to “just be more diplomatic in dealing with people” and said he expected the dispute to be worked out amicably. 

In the wake of the dust-up, Sen. Joan Carter Conway, sponsor of DNR’s bill, withdrew it. She said she would reintroduce the measure only if the agency and the watermen are able to reach some kind of agreement on it.