Eric C. Schwaab, the Maryland fisheries service director at the center of the dispute surrounding protection of the Chesapeake Bay blue crab, was fired Friday afternoon - just hours after the Ehrlich administration unveiled plans to ease crabbing restrictions.
Environmental groups and people who worked with Schwaab during his 20 years with the Maryland Department of Natural Resources said his departure will be a loss for the agency.
"We're a little bewildered that he would be fired so abruptly," said Sue Brown, director of the Maryland League of Conservation Voters. "Eric is one of the most experienced and highly respected natural resource officials in the state."
A spokesman for DNR Secretary C. Ronald Franks said he could not comment on a personnel matter.
Schwaab is the latest DNR official to lose his job since Robert L. Ehrlich Jr. became the first Republican governor since Spiro T. Agnew.
Four top DNR officials were fired on Ehrlich's inauguration day - Deputy Secretary Karen White and assistant secretaries Sumita Chaudhuri, Verna Harrison and Carolyn Watson.
The Democratic-controlled Senate last week rejected Ehrlich's choice of Lynn Y. Buhl to be the state's environmental secretary.
Schwaab, 42, had a long and varied career in the agency, where he was first hired as a Maryland Natural Resources Police officer. Later, he served as a ranger at Gunpowder State Park, and then was promoted to management positions at Deep Creek Lake and for the park system. In 1992, he was appointed director of the Forest Service. He became director of the fisheries service four years ago.
"Normally, these are the sorts of people you want to keep," said former DNR Secretary John R. Griffin. "I feel very badly for him, and I feel, certainly, a sense of loss for the agency."
Schwaab said last night that he did not know whether his role in developing the proposal to allow watermen to catch smaller crabs during the first half of crab season - welcomed by watermen and the seafood industry but criticized by some environmentalists - was a factor in his dismissal.
"We worked real hard to make it the announcement that it was," he said. "It was a challenging task to try to balance the desire of this new administration to provide more for the industry and the watermen but at the same time continue the commitment to the crab resource."
Schwaab said he was caught off guard by his dismissal. "We had a press conference [about the crabbing regulations] at 1. Everyone was happy. By 4 o'clock, I was in the midst of discussing my last day at the department," he said.
Schwaab said he did not want to dwell on the way he was let go. "I just want to look back fondly on the accomplishments and the experiences I've had," he said.