Within hours of announcing its first environmental policy initiative -- a rollback of crabbing regulations on behalf of seafood processors and watermen -- Maryland's new Republican administration issued another edict: Quit or be fired, it told the state chief of fisheries.
Eric Schwaab, 42, was one of the primary architects of a plan by Maryland and Virginia to save the blue crab population of the Chesapeake Bay from crashing. For the past two years, the Maryland Department of Natural Resources enforced size and catch limits on crabs so that more would be left in the water to breed.
This year, no new restrictions were planned. But, as promised during his election campaign, Gov. Robert L. Ehrlich Jr. had the department revisit the rules already in place. Friday turned out to be payback for the Eastern Shore delegation, which represents most watermen in Maryland and helped swing the general election vote in Ehrlich's favor.
Standing behind new Natural Resources Secretary C. Ronald Franks, Eastern Shore lawmakers cheered the decision to ease crabbing regulations.
"The fishery is nowhere even close to collapse," said Del. Kenneth D. Schisler (R-Talbot), chairman of the delegation.
Yesterday, Schwaab said he had been called into Franks's office after Friday's news conference and offered a letter of resignation to sign. If he didn't, he'd be fired, Schwaab said he was told. He declined to sign and was given the weekend to think it over, he said.
"I have had 20 years of some of the most amazing jobs there were," Schwaab said. "Something equally exciting, I'm sure, is on the horizon."
Schwaab said he remained concerned that the management of the fishery was so focused on "haggling over tenths of a percent" of reductions that the big picture was being missed.
"This biological and economic situation really calls for a much more comprehensive game plan," he said. "These regulations were just a short-term response to stop the bleeding of the [crab] population."
After his election victory, Ehrlich had promised to de-politicize the Department of Natural Resources, implying that it had become overrun by environmental zealots who had little concern for the business community.
DNR spokesman John Surrick would neither confirm nor deny Schwaab's firing, saying yesterday that the department could not discuss personnel matters.