TAMPA – In her eulogy to Gus Muench, longtime friend and fellow environmental activist Nanette O’Hara noted he was a commercial crabber who incurred the wrath of other crabbers and fishers by advocating seasonal closures to stop overfishing.
That was just one of his campaigns. Muench, who died Aug. 14 at age 83, fought fiercely to protect Cockroach Bay, the Little Manatee River and the estuaries of southeast Hillsborough County, decrying the destruction of mangroves — nurseries of sea life — by shoreline development.
Perhaps his most notable achievement was getting Hillsborough County to buy sensitive environmental lands, including an island with a shell mound created by the early Uzita Indians, among the first residents Florida, to preserve its history and the ecosystem. That purchase inspired the late Hillsborough County Commissioner Jan K. Platt to push for a similar effort for sensitive lands throughout the county, approved twice by county voters. As of now, the county has purchased 61,000 acres of now-protected lands under the Jan K. Platt Environmental Lands Acquistion and Protection Program.
“He was one of my favorite people in the world, someone that respected everyone, but was also very very forceful and passionate about the issues the mattered most to him,’’ O’Hara said in an interview.
O’Hara, longtime former outreach coordinator of the Tampa Bay Estuary Program, said Muench — pronounced munik — loved to take visitors on the close-up ecology lesson that is Tampa Bay. He started a business, Gus’ Crabby Adventures. The guests would help him bait crab traps and harvest others while getting an ecology lesson from him. When they got back to his dock on the Little Manatee River, they would feast on a lunch of fresh blue crabs, hush puppies and cold beer.
“People say, they pull your traps and they pay you and then you sell their catch? That's got to be the greatest job in the world,’’ Muench related in an video interview for the Tampa Bay Estuary Program, produced by G. Steve Jordan Films. “So anyway, it’s worked out pretty good,’’ he said with a chuckle.
Unlike others along the river, Muench’s shoreline was shielded by mangroves. At his dock, a night heron he named “Wanna Eat’’ was a familiar fixture, flying in daily to get a fish. Over the years, as one heron succeeded another, the new bird got the fish — and the name.
“Gus was not religious, but he was deeply spiritual,’’ O’Hara had eulogized. “His cathedral was the Little Manatee River and the emerald islands and swash channels of Cockroach Bay. His hymns were the raucous cries of seagulls circling his boat and the wingbeats of brown pelicans swooping in to beg for a handout.’’
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Muench gained his knowledge by years of observing, reading and asking questions, O’Hara said.
“Fishermen in general have a lot of time on the water to think and observe and look around,’’ she said. “He looked around and took note of what he saw, how things changed over the seasons. He saw improvements; he also saw the need to preserve the wetlands... He was spot on in recognizing the importance of those creeks, streams and mangrove marshes.’’
And he wasn’t shy about emailing a marine biologist or other professor he didn’t know if he had a question, said August Muench-Nasrallah, one of his three sons.
‘He did what he thought he needed to do,'' he said.
For example, to counter the effects of mangrove destruction, he built and sold an artificial reef to create a habitat for fish and crabs at the base of seawalls.
As a Hillsborough County native, Muench’s love of the outdoors began with excursions on the Hillsborough River, he said in interviews. He graduated from Hillsborough High School and for decades was a telephone company worker and supervisor. He put out crab traps on the side until he retired from the phone company, then became a crabber full-time, spending three to five hours a day on the water.
Muench successfully garnered publicity for his effort to get the county to buy the Indian mound and pristine islands near it by taking his two younger sons, August and Samuel — then about 12 and 11 — on a canoe trip along the shoreline from Manatee County to Ruskin. They camped along the way.
Mary Kelley Hoppe first became aware of Muench when she served on the National Estuary Program. He would send five- or six-page handwritten letters urging action to protect the bay and the land around it. When he got a computer, he became even more prolific.
Soon, he found himself appointed to various environmental committees, putting his activism to work. He served on the Cockroach Bay Aquatic Preserve Management Advisory Committee; the state Fish and Wildlife Conservation Commission’s Blue Crab Advisory Group; the Little Manatee River Preservation Committee, the Cockroach Bay Users Group and the All Release Sport Fishing Society. He served on the Technical Advisory Committee and Manatee Awareness Coalition for the Tampa Bay Estuary Program, which, along with the Agency on Bay Management, this year named him a Champion of the Bay. He was also a recipient of the Chevron Conservation Award.
Recently, the Hillsborough County Commission directed its staff to develop a passive trail named after Muench, with an informational plaque, at Cockroach Bay Preserve.
“He was literally one of those handful of people that if you’re lucky enough to meet them in life, you’re lucky enough,’’ said Hoppe. “He was the salt of the earth, just so authentic and true.’’
Born: June 26, 1936 in Tampa
Died: Aug. 14, 2019 in Tampa
Survivors: Sons Stephen Muench, Riverview, August Muench-Nasrallah, New Haven, Conn., and Samuel Muench, Rochester, Minn.; and a sister, Kay Jiretz, Floral City. He was predeceased by his wife, Betsy.