A 15-year veteran of the Department of Natural Resources has been tapped to head the struggling Maryland Fisheries Service.
Tom O'Connell, 38, inherits a unit that has lost a quarter of its work force over the past five years and could lose a like number to retirement by 2011. It faces a skeptical constituency of 650,000 recreational anglers, watermen, conservationists and charter boat captains.
"It was a minute of excitement followed by an overwhelming feeling of responsibility," said O'Connell, a Caroline County resident, who was promoted from assistant director for the Estuarine and Marine Fisheries Division. "But it's one of those opportunities that doesn't come along often. It's an opportunity to turn things around."
For starters, O'Connell will have to work with the Task Force on Fisheries Management, a group demanded by recreational fishing organizations and authorized by the General Assembly last year to review state policy and recommend ways to improve and streamline species management.
"I think we've lost some of our credibility and respect ... and that means stakeholders have gone around the process," he said. "I feel we really need to redefine the process by which we manage this resource."
Included in that, he said, is getting diverse groups involved in fishing to help set priorities on which species and issues deserve the most attention.
The fisheries budget is getting a $750,000 boost this year that will allow O'Connell to hire people to oversee data collection, monitor habitat and manage tidal black bass.
O'Connell started at DNR in 1993 as a fisheries biologist working on striped bass monitoring and management. He moved on to direct legislative and policy programs and coastal bays management.
In perhaps his most controversial role, he managed the state Oyster Restoration Program during the debate about whether to introduce Asian oysters to the Chesapeake Bay, a concept pushed during the Ehrlich administration that has languished under Gov. Martin O'Malley.
O'Connell said it was a "misperception" that he backed the Asian oyster proposal. His role, he said was to support the study of the issue.
The new director will also have to hire a deputy, a position that has been vacant for more than a year. O'Connell said he expects that to take two to three months.