A Tampa crabber fights to save Cockroach Bay

click to enlarge "I'm just a crazy environmentalist that writes too many e-mails," says local crabber Gus Muench. - Alex Pickett
Alex Pickett
"I'm just a crazy environmentalist that writes too many e-mails," says local crabber Gus Muench.

Before writing anything about Cockroach Bay, Gus Muench tells me, get one thing straight: Cockroach Bay is not named after Florida's notorious six-legged pest. As the story goes, early Spanish explorers came up with the moniker after observing numerous horseshoe crabs crawling along the bay's shallow sea floor.

Cockroach Bay, located in the southern portion of Tampa Bay, touches roughly five miles of shoreline from Ruskin to the Manatee County line. It's one of the Tampa Bay area's premier fishing spots, the shallow flats acting as a large nursery for snook, red drum and other fish popular with anglers.

These waters have supplied a living to numerous fishermen, including Muench, who caught blue crab in Cockroach Bay for 32 years; that is, until 2006, when he ended his business. Blue crab populations were dropping precipitously, he says, due in part to the disappearance of seagrass in Cockroach Bay. The culprits? Fishermen and boaters (like him) who sped through the bay's shallow waters, their motors cutting large swaths through seagrass beds.

"I was part of the problem," he says from his home on the banks of the Little Manatee River.

Now Muench has a new mission: Convince Hillsborough County to turn Cockroach Bay into a protected marine sanctuary.

"People have a tremendous impact on everything they touch," the Tampa native says. "We're constantly putting pressure on the bay and the [increased] population is having a significant effect. I think this is a special area and it should be protected."

Dressed in a beaten linen shirt, blue trousers and rubber boots, Muench climbs into his truck and drives down U.S. 41 to county land bordering Cockroach Bay. From a large hill overlooking the bay, Muench points out a patchwork of barrier islands, tidal flats, mangrove forests and bordering wetlands. The Sunshine Skyway Bridge and downtown Tampa gleam in the distance. Below him, a flock of pink spoonbills feeds in a shallow pond. As Muench talks about his sanctuary plan, a rare sandhill crane warbles in the distance.

This isn't the first time Muench has proposed a radical measure to preserve Hillsborough County's South Shore region. In the mid-'80s, he worked with county officials on a plan to buy portions of undeveloped land for preservation. The resulting Environmental Lands Acquisition and Preservation Program (ELAPP) has protected over 45,000 acres since being adopted by voters in 1987. (ELAPP is up for renewal in next month's election; for more details, go to dailyloafblog.com)

Muench thinks his sanctuary proposal could be just as successful. Cockroach Bay is an integral part of Tampa Bay's ecosystem, he argues. The area's waters and barrier islands contain historically significant Indian mounds, a large population of manatees and the second largest bird rookery in the county.

The biggest asset, he says, is the seagrass that lines the bay's bottom. This vegetation provides cover and habitat for young fish, crabs and other sea life, as well as food for manatees. But the seagrass is disappearing.

Seagrass beds have shrunk by almost 80 percent since the 1950s, according to studies by Hillsborough County's Environmental Protection Commission. And though Cockroach Bay has seen a comeback of vegetation over the last few years, environmentalists fear those gains could be lost without some sort of regulation. Just as the seagrass is mounting a comeback, growth in South County is exploding with condos, new marinas and hundreds of new boaters. In a 2007 report, the EPC found over 15,000 propeller scars throughout Cockroach Bay's seagrass beds.

But protecting Cockroach Bay has become a classic battle: Environmentalists pushing for more protection and boaters decrying more restrictions on their waterways.

"We've tried self-monitoring," says Ann Paul, Tampa Bay regional coordinator for Audubon of Florida, "but we're just not seeing the results."

The irony, points out Paul: if the seagrass beds disappear, so will the fish.

Fishing guides like Captain Ric Liles agree seagrass is crucial for fish (and his business), but disputes claims that it's quickly disappearing.

"There is not a problem with the seagrass," says the Ruskin native, who has fished in these waters for 37 years. "There is scarring, but the scarring is so minimal it's absolutely ridiculous."

In fact, Liles says, some bare spots in the bay's grassy meadows are actually helpful for fish to ambush their prey.

Last year, the EPC brought together stakeholders to explore a "pole and troll" zone for Little Cockroach Bay from the Cockroach Bay boat ramp to the mouth of the Little Manatee River. The zone would require boaters to use a push pole or electric trolling motor to move through the water channels, minimizing impact to seagrass beds.

Fishing guides say the extra time this takes to move through the bay would kill their business. "Nobody wants to spend money for a four-hour fishing trip and only put the lines in for an hour and a half," says Liles.

Muench wants the county to go further and create a pole and troll zone for all of Cockroach Bay, extending from Little Manatee River to the Manatee County line. Last month, he submitted a proposal to the EPC outlining a "Cockroach Bay Sanctuary" managed by a technical advisory group consisting of the Florida Department of Environmental Protection (which owns the water), Hillsborough County Tampa Port Authority (which manages the submerged lands) and the Southwest Florida Water Management District (which oversees much of the wetlands around the bay). Muench says this group would not prevent public use of the bay but provide a consistent management plan for the area. Plus, he says, those changes might open up the area for federal and state grants.

"I think it's foolish for us to pass this up," he says.

But not all county officials are sold on the plan.

"I think what we have is working right now," says Hillsborough County Commissioner Al Higginbotham, who frequently kayaks and fishes on Cockroach Bay. "I have concerns about losing recreational space."

Tom Ash, EPC's general manager of environmental restoration, questions how such a sanctuary would be enforced in a tough budget year.

"I don't want to lean on the crutch of law enforcement," he says, emphasizing education. "But if you make the rules easy enough to follow, then I think you'll see [seagrass] recover."

Eventually, any plan will go to the EPC board — made up of the seven county commissioners — for approval. Up to this point, mostly fishing guides opposed to pole and troll zones have voiced their opinions at the meetings. Muench says the commission needs to see more individuals who want the extra protections.

"It comes down to private individuals raising Cain," he says.

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