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Sowing the seeds of life

Gus Muench Jr. knelt on his dock and pulled what city people would consider a stinking mess of barnacles, oysters and snapping fish out of the Little Manatee River. Gus Muench is no city person, so he thought the collection of slime was as pretty as a painting. "It's life," he said. "Look at all the life."

Muench, in a way, was responsible for the life. In an experiment some time back, he took plastic mesh and rolled it into 4-foot-long tubes. Then he lashed seven of those tubes together and dropped them next to his dock. Six months later, he reached into the water and recovered them. The tubes had gained 50 pounds of marine life.

Oysters, barnacles and algae had taken up residence on, and in, the tubes. Microscopic organisms had shown up to eat the algae, and minnows had gathered to devour the microscopic organisms. Bigger fish were hanging around his dock to snack on the minnows, the barnacles, the crabs and the shrimp.

Muench had created his own underwater delicatessen, his own food chain, his own artificial reef. And he saw that it was good.

"We've done a lot to destroy our waters over the years," said Muench, who has lived all of his 56 years near or on waterfront Hillsborough County. "But I think there are things we can do to repair it."

Muench, a commercial fisherman and award-winning environmentalist, hopes his artificial reefs _ he calls them Seawall Reefs _ can be an important tool in the repair kit. For several years he has built, tested and even sold a few of them.

Last week he pulled a reef onto the dock and shook it. A sea horse fell out. Gus Muench Jr. said it was his first sea horse. Then a baby stone crab dropped in front of him, followed by a small dogfish. Oysters squirted streams of water. Muench likes it when oysters spit at him. Life, sweet life.

Most of his waterfront neighbors _ almost everybody who lives on Florida's waterfront, for that matter _ don't know what they're missing. For the most part, their water is barren of life. Their seawalls long ago replaced mangroves, whose decaying leaves are a building block in the marine food chain. They wonder why they can't catch fish. They paid all this money for waterfront property and they can't catch fish.

As Gus Muench could tell them, they can't catch fish because there is nothing next to the seawall that provides food or habitat. Muench can cut up a ladyfish, toss chunks next to his dock and watch snook, a game fish, explode from the shadows to eat. Muench never had such fine snook until he had a consistent supply of minnows. He never had the minnows until he had the algae. He never had the algae until he had the homemade reefs.

"It happened by accident," Muench said. In 1986, a crab trap fell off the dock into the shallows. Muench, who has hundreds of traps, didn't recover it for months. When he did, he was astounded by the growing all over it. He even had a mangrove. A seed pod, floating along with the tide, had caught in the trap's mesh and taken root in the mud.

Muench, who worked 32 years for General Telephone while moonlighting as a fisherman, started experimenting with different designs. He placed them all around his dock and seawall and watched them. Now he's got his own little sea world. His neighbors look out on barren water.

Muench has sold 170 traps since January. When he installs them, he throws in some live oysters. Live oysters seem to attract life to the reefs even faster.

"I'm not going to be no millionaire," he said. In fact, he wonders whether there might even be a better way of making backyard reefs. "What I've done is only the beginning." Maybe somebody out there will take his idea and run with it even farther.

So far, people in the marine community have been interested. Marine biologists and homeowners from all over the state who have heard about the reefs have called and visited Muench. Several students are doing school projects on his backyard reefs. "I'm just a fisherman," he said. "I'm not a biologist. I'd like somebody to study these things."

Muench may lack scientific background, but he is full of good ideas and intentions. During the last five years he has won awards from Florida Audubon Society and the Florida Wildlife Federation for his efforts to protect marine habitat.

Last spring, he became only the 23rd Floridian (in 36 years) to win the prestigious Chevron Conservation Award. He and his wife were flown to Washington, where he was given a plaque and a $1,000 check. Marjorie Stoneman Douglas, who has fought to save the Everglades for four decades, was a past winner.

Muench, the president of the Little Manatee Preservation Committee, has helped keep full-scale development away from the river banks. He successfully led opposition to Tampa Electric Co.'s plans to build a power plant on Cockroach Bay. He waged another campaign that ended when Hillsborough County bought 75 islands in the bay.

He recently organized a group of volunteers to plant 200 donated pine trees on one of those islands. During the next two months, Muench will transport barrels of water to the islands and water the trees. "I stay busy," he said.

During the day he builds his artificial reefs and crab traps. He has 300 traps in Tampa Bay. In a good week, he harvests about 900 pounds of blue crabs. At night, he goes out and catches catfish in his gill net. He uses catfish for crab bait.

Unlike most commercial fishermen, he refuses to net mullet in the fall because they are filled with roe. He thinks mullet are disappearing because fellow fishers are killing too many breeding fish. A commercial fishing organization he helped form in 1988 revoked his membership last year because he was lobbying for stronger laws.

He believes he has fished almost every inch of Tampa Bay during his half-century. His father was a good fisherman, too. During the Depression, when many people went hungry, the Muenchs enjoyed fresh fish. Gus and his dad caught them in cast nets.

A lot of the sea chain has disappeared since then. According to biologists, 81 percent of the bay's original sea grasses are gone. Forty-five percent of the mangroves have been torn out.

Gus Muench Jr. has managed, somehow, to stay optimistic about his bay. He considers himself a lucky man. His eyes have beheld such wonders:

He has watched the full moon rise over the mangroves of Cockroach Bay while vast schools of mullet jumped in unison to escape ravenous dolphins. He has seen a mother yellow-crowned night heron chase away her young _ because it was time they grow up and face the world.

A dozen fine, large blue crabs, snapping in homemade traps at sundown, has never failed to cheer him. The sight of bald eagles, manatees and acres of fish has warmed him on many a chilly January morning.

Life _ muddy, smelly, primeval life _ squirms in the reefs next to his dock.

"I told my wife, that when I die, I want my ashes spread out on an oyster bar," he said. The oyster bar nearest the dock was covered by the tide. A dolphin rolled and exhaled air. The sound carried over the water. Gus Muench listened for a moment and walked into his house, a house he had built with his own hands.

Here's where to write

Gus Muench Jr. sells his artificial reefs for $34.50 each (plus $7 for shipping), or installs them anywhere in the Tampa Bay area for $49.50. For more information on artificial Seawall Reefs, write Oyster Reef Designs Inc., P.O. Box 1821, Ruskin, FL 33570. Or call (813) 645-3888 between the hours of 9 a.m. and 5 p.m. Monday through Friday.