Early in the morning when most people are still asleep, Gus Muench is already out on the water baiting his crab traps or pulling them in.
Muench, now 79, was born in Tampa and has lived in the area all his life.
Although he worked for GTE until his retirement, he’s crabbed on the side since he was a little boy.
Now it’s his main source of livelihood.
“My daddy taught me how to make the traps,” Muench said. “I remember back then he called me ‘Buddy.’ I asked my mother one day how I’d gotten that nickname, and she said it wasn’t a nickname, that I was my father’s buddy.”
Muench’s dad also taught him to make cast nets and how to commercial fish, but since 1976, he has concentrated on crabbing.
“I have about 200 traps,” he said when interviewed Sept. 17. “I’ve worked all over [Tampa] Bay, the Cockroach area, Simmons Park, and the Little Manatee River.”
Muench said he used to make the crab traps himself, but now he buys them.
He has also had to cut down the amount of time he spends on the water as he’s aged.
“I used to carry 160 pounds of bait, and when I had used it up, I’d come in. Then I went to 100.” He laughed. “Now I carry 50 pounds and figure if I can get that much out, I’m doing all right.”
Muench, who has now lived in Ruskin for 45 years, has a long history of helping protect the Bay as well as earn his livelihood from it.
He has been the recipient of the Chevron Conservation Award; the Polly Redford Memorial Award from the Florida Audubon Society; and was made a member of Hillsborough High School’s Hall of Fame. He has also been on the Tampa Bay Regional Planning Council, the Agency on Bay Management, the Jan Platt ELAPP (Environmental Lands Acquisition and Protection Program) Committee, and won first place in the 2012 Hillsborough County Agriculture Business competition.
For years, however, there have been times when no matter how many traps he baited and pulled up, his work was in vain because of crab-trap thieves.
Lately, it’s happened a lot.
“This type of crime comes in waves,” said Marine Patrol Officer Grant Burton. “More people are doing it now because of the economy. You see the crime go up as more people need money.”
Florida Fish and Wildlife Conservation Commission spokesman Baryl Martin explained that just recently, some arrests have been made in the Ruskin area.
“This kind of crime can get someone up to five years in prison and a $5,000 fine,” Martin said. “The only way crabbers can tell if someone is messing with their traps is if they find them open or otherwise disturbed. There’s no way to access the value unless you catch somebody in the act because you can’t tell how many crabs were taken.”
Burton added that he has a video of a recent theft in the Ruskin area and is still building the case.
“There are others doing this type of thing now, too,” he said. “It’s such a large area — the Bay and the rivers — it is impossible to be everywhere at once.”
Disturbing the traps and taking the crabs out are two different crimes, Martin explained. “Taking the crabs from the traps is a misdemeanor. Disturbing the traps, touching the buoys, the lines, or any part of the trap is a felony.”
The reason this seems backwards is that it is easier to prove trap molestation than crab theft, he said. “Who knows whose crabs are whose once they get in someone else’s possession,” he said. “Unless you see them take them, once they’re put in someone’s boat, it’s impossible to prove they don’t belong to that person unless you saw them steal.”
Meanwhile Muench said he will continue to set his traps and bait them as usual.
“The people responsible will get caught,” he said, “and then it should quiet down for a while.”
Some local commercial fishermen have been charged, but not proven guilty yet in court, so names are not being used in this story.