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To protect or not protect is the question

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Blue Crab Sanctuary meeting

By MELODY JAMESON

RUSKIN - Should a unique crustacean that’s an important link in the ecological chain, whose numbers suffer in drought conditions and which is prized on the plates of seafood lovers everywhere get protections to preserve it?

This is the question being posed by a local fisherman who has been up close and personal with this particular marine life for decades.

In fact, Gus Muench feels so strongly about preserving the little blue crab which rambles up and down the Florida west coast that he’s scheduled a public meeting to air the subject. He’s also drafted a signature petition to gauge public sentiment.

Muench, a Florida native who grew up in Tampa, learned to fish in the northern reaches of Tampa Bay with his dad and raised his family on the south shore of the Little Manatee River, has been crabbing with traps along the river for 30 plus years. He’s studied the small, tasty crustaceans first hand and studied about them. The result, he says firmly, is the conviction they’re being over-harvested. And if the delicious blue crab is to continue to grace restaurant menus in the future, it needs protections today, he adds.

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CHERE SIMMONS Photo
He’s also willing to put his money where his mouth is. Muench believes a sort of sanctuary for the blue crab should be established east of I-75, with all commercial trapping eliminated in that area — including his own. Such a move would benefit not only the crab population but also boaters on the river, he adds, because removing all the traps in the narrowing river east of the roadway would make boating in the area safer and easier as well as enhance the natural beauty of the waterway.

Blue crabs, like shrimp, are detritus feeders, Muench explains. During years of substantial rains, sufficient supplies of matter wash into the river to decay and provide food for a healthy crab population. But, in drought conditions the crabs retreat upstream, looking for food sources where small streams empty into the river. And that should be their sanctuary; a place to rest, feed and grow undisturbed until they return downstream and to the waiting traps.

Muench admits he has no surveys beyond his own observations over a period of years to back his convictions but is convinced such a protection would preserve the blue crab population for the enjoyment of future generations. The crabber also notes that while Florida has no such blue crab protections in place at the present time, other states have taken such a step. Plus, he adds, Florida does protect many other types of marine life one way or another: manatees with go slow zones and power plant sanctuaries, numerous varieties of fish with season-only harvesting or lasting moratoriums on catching, shrimp and crawfish and oysters with closed seasons and/or maximum take limits.

While he’s not yet ready to take a position on Muench’s question, Dr. Ryan Gandy, a research scientist on the Florida Wildlife Commission staff in St. Petersburg, allows the blue crab of the fisherman’s harvesting area is both unique and ecologically valuable.

FWC has not conducted any studies or surveys that would substantiate Muench’s contention the blue crab population in the Little Manatee River area has diminished or radically fluctuated over time, Gandy notes. But, the agency has been able to demonstrate the crabs will migrate en masse hundreds of miles along the Florida west coast. This makes them unique, Gandy says, unlike other crab varieties and differentiated from other blues.

Moreover, the blue crab is both predator and prey, Gandy adds, feeding on other organisms and also becoming dinner for larger marine life. This fact makes the crab unarguably an important piece in the ecological chain, the scientist says.

Muench , currently a member of the FWC blue crab advisory committee, plans to open discussion of a sanctuary for the crustacean before the committee when it next meets in February.

And in response, Gandy says “we’re open to looking into it”.

Meanwhile, Muench wants to know if there’s public support for protecting the little crab with the big taste. It is such support, he suggests, that would go a long way toward bringing the FWC into the sanctuary camp. The public meeting is set for 6:30 PM, Wednesday, December 8, in the SouthShore Regional Library conference room, adjacent to 19th Avenue N.E.

Copyright 2010 Melody Jameson
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