Ruskin Crabber's Earnest Plea a Clarion Call for Environment
Gus Muench eases off the throttle of his skiff and steers toward a blue-gray buoy marking a submerged crab trap.
Dropping the boat to idle speed, he grabs a stainless steel hook attached to a pole and swipes it beneath the bobbing marker. Placing the line in a sidewinder winch, he hoists the trap aboard. The wire-mesh enclosure teems with live blue crabs.
It's a routine Gus has perfected in 42 years of pulling thousands of crab traps from the bottom of the Little Manatee River and shallow estuaries along Tampa Bay's southeast coastline.
He didn't set out to be an environmentalist, or a linchpin of Hillsborough County's successful Jan K. Platt Environmental Lands Acquisition and Protection Program (ELAPP). It just happened.
"I was never an environmentalist," he says. "I was a fisherman."
But Gus' efforts in the mid-1980s, including his call to buy an island piled high with discarded shells and artifacts by Native Americans, played a key role in the creation of ELAPP.
In letters to the local media, he made a case for purchasing the Uzita tribe's uninhabited, centuries-old mound near Cockroach Bay. The requests and subsequent newspaper editorials inspired then-Hillsborough County Commissioner Platt to propose buying sensitive habitat throughout the county. In a 1987 referendum, voters supported taxing themselves to raise money to buy such lands. Similar referendums passed in 1990 and 2008, expanding the program.
Now, 30 years after acquisition of the first site, ELAPP has amassed more than 61,000 acres of County lands deemed environmentally significant. The program is fulfilling its mission to preserve forests, wetlands, and other natural lands in one of Florida's most rapidly developing counties.
To mark the three-decade success story, environmental advocates have chronicled the program's genesis and accomplishments in the ELAPP History Project. The website has interactive, then-and-now aerial maps of Hillsborough County; historic photographs, and interviews with key contributors such as Platt, former Florida Gov. Bob Martinez, and the Ruskin crabber whose letter-writing campaign helped start it all.
Gus still lives in the house he built 50 years ago beside the Little Manatee River. He pulls traps most days - he keeps about 250 of them in the water - and runs tours, Gus' Crabby Adventures, for residents and visitors who want to "experience what I experience," he says.
He is proud of ELAPP's accomplishments, and modest about his role in helping launch the movement.
He misses the days when he could reel in a snook off his dock, just about any time. But he also appreciates modern conveniences. "There are fewer mosquitoes now," he says. "When I first came down here you could get a gallon in a quart jar."