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subfield code a T43-000162 USFLDC DOI0 245 August "Gus" Muench oral history interviewh [electronic resource] /c interviewed by Ann B. Hodgson.500 Full cataloging of this resource is underway and will replace this temporary record when complete.1 600 Muench, August7 655 Oral history.localOnline audio.local700 Hodgson, Ann B.710 University of South Florida.b Library.Special & Digital Collections.Oral History Program.773 t Tampa Bay Oral History Project4 856 u http://digital.lib.usf.edu/?t43.16
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text Ann B. Hodgson (AH): Good morning. This is Ann Hodgson with the Tampa Bay Oral History Project, and today with me is Gus Muench. Gus is a lifelong resident of the Tampa Bay area. Gus, welcome to the program.
August Gus Muench (AM): Thank you, Ann.
AH: Great to see you. I'd like to start just real casually by asking: Tell us about your early childhood. You grew up in the Tampa Bay area.
AM: I was born in TampaSt. Joseph Hospitalin 1936, lived in Seminole Heights as a kid, and grew up with a dad that liked to fish, and sothe familywe went camping all over Florida, you might say, and fished. Back then, lakes weren't fenced up; there werent houses all around, so you could go swimming and fishing in a lot of the lakes in Hillsborough County. But I grew up in Seminole Heights on North Street. There was a little part down in North Street, there, and I had, like, an eight foot plywood boat that my dad gave me, and it was chained up at this little park. So he gave me a two-and-a-half horse kicker, and I had a bicycle, and I'd put the motor on the bike and the gas can and the fishing rod and the tackle box, and go to the river, and put it on the boat.
It would take all day to travel up the Hillsborough River to the dam, okay. It would take all day to go to the City of Tampa. And so, I was like Huck Finnlived on a river, there. I had an old dog named Patchy. We stayed on that river. It was a good life, growing up that way. Back then, the City of Tampa sewer was dumped in the river. So up near Hannah's WhirlI dont know if you've ever heard of Hannah's Whirlit's like a whirlpool where the river comes down, makes a swirl there, and just above it was where the sewer dumped in the river. The river was whiteit was white from that. I guess it had alum or something they put in the sewer water. It was a good place to fish, though; we had a lot of fish and crabs in the river and didn't think about the sewer being bad. Then I remember when they put a sewer lining along the banks of the river to the new sewer plant on Davis Island.
So that made a big changeand also the dam! I remember they blew up the dam, the old dam, and destroyed it and built a new dam. But, you know, the river changed considerably. The city was using the water from the river for the Hillsborough residents. And we had floods; we had a lot of rain, and houses along the river would get flooded out. And so the river would rise up, and other areas in Temple Terrace and North Hillsborough County would get flooded out. So they built the Tampa Bypass Canal later on. That changed the riverthat really changed the river. In fact, it was detrimental to the river because a river design is made by the flow of the water the width, the depthis all designed by the flow of the water.
So when you take away that water, send it down the Tampa Bypass Canal, and siphon it off, you actually lose your mixing of dissolved oxygen, your D.O. So the lower parts of the river, from the dam on, lost that flow and lost that dissolved mixing. And so today, all you have is a trickle of water going down, and you don't have that dissolved mixing. In fact, one of the most polluted places in Tampa Bay is the mouth of the Hillsborough River, okay. Oysters don't even want to reproduce at that point. I can remember putting in reefs along Davis Island, and you'd come out of the water, and you'd have crud all over your body from the stuff that comes out of the river. I don't think we'll ever be able to correct that, you know with the storm water.
But anyway, I moved down to Ruskin, uh, 45 years ago. I bought a lot on the river for, like, 1900 dollars and built a house there. Uh, that changed my life. It really did because I became in touch with nature. Before that, my dad had taught me how to knit cast nets; I waded all over the bay catching mud. We spent our time in Pappys Bayou, which is a Weedon Island Preserve area now. And so, I had a lot of experience fishing, but when I moved to Ruskin in the Cockroach Bay area, I learned a considerable amount about the environment, which I had taken for granted and never thought about.
So I learned about the oysters and all the crabs. I started crabbing 39 years ago there, and I call it, still, crabbing. The crabbing lead to creating a company called Guss Crabby Adventures, where I take people out and let them be a crabberprobably the only one in the country who does this; at least, I think so, I dont know. Kids get a big kick out of that, being able to pull crab traps up and bait them and catch the blue crabs. We come back, and we'll cook them up and eat seafood. So even Florida Aquarium had their summer camp kids coming down in June, but that had to stop last year because I had to give up crabbing, but I started back again this year.
Also, I learned about all this habitat along the shoreline and realized that we had cleared all these uplands to put houses on them. And there was this last bit of habitat along the riverbank, and along all wetlands, that we dont give credit toit's a wildlife edge habitat; it's an edge habitat. We need to take care of that. So with that, I worked with Hillsborough County Comp. Plan and created a wildlife corridorShoreline Wildlife Corridorwhich adds to the protection of that valuable spot, which is right in front of your house. Most people would have cut all of that down and see as far as they can.
And Im a mangrove freak; I love the mangroves. And realizing that thats where all your herons feed on the mangrove crabs, and its the last bit of the wildlife that we have. The edge habitat protects the water body from soils washing into the bay, lakes, rivers, so its extremely invaluable. Its extremely invaluable, what we do. Well, I think we have an ego problem. We want to show off our beautiful houses that weve got painted up there. But Im on the water, I want to see natural shoreline. I dont want to see painted houses, okay. In fact, that led to creating what I call seawall reefs.
I started a company called Oyster Reef Design, and we got a patent on seawall reefs. We put reefs in; they grow oysters. Actually, it started out as a fish habitat, and then I found out that, well, through succession, oysters are going to grow on that. Oysters give off sediment; they spit out silt and clay; the sediment falls down between the oysters, and then that fills up. The oysters keep going until they get to the point called mean high water line. That mean high water line is where the oysters stop growing, okay, and thats where your red mangrove seeds come in and get caught and start growing.
So, where I started that fish habitat, the seawall reefs led to oyster growth; the oyster growth led to mangrovesthats the succession of it. Then the bird life came in. Thats where the reds, the whites, and blacks, and buttonwood all start, and spartinastart above the mean water line. But below you had the sea grass and the oysters. But then the red mangroves would grow, as they became adult trees, to the mean low water line, and those rootsprop roots; they look like spider rootsthats where the oysters grow, on that. Creates a lot of habitat for fish, a lot of habitat, and so thats a good place to fish. Youre fishing the fish next to the mangroves, the red mangroves.
Thats about the story of the mangroves. But, anyway, I also created interests for Cockroach Bay because thats where I moved to, the Cockroach Bay area. And looking at the history of that, I saw that in 1539I think it was Hernando de Soto came in somewhere near Port Manatee with a bunch of ships from Cuba. They had slave ships, and they unloaded, like, 200-some horses and men from Port Manatee area, and they traveled up. A week later, they came to the mouth of the Little Manatee River. There was an Indian Chief there. His name was Uzita: U-z-i-t-a. He left when de Soto was coming in there, and the ships had the drift from the tide, and they all came together there, at the mouth of the riverat this big ending mouth.
And thats where the de Soto Trail starts. It starts, and it goes up through Florida. De Soto somewhere died up in, I dont know, Georgia or North Carolinasomewhere up there. But they brought along slave traders from Cuba, and as they went through all these Indian villages, whats sad about it is that theyd catch slaves, bring them back to the ship, but in the process, they would steal all the food from the Indian campsvillages they came toand kill the Indiansthe ones they didnt capture. Because the slave traders didnt want to fight the Indians coming back to the ship. Well, five years after de Soto landed, the Indians were gone. And they had lived in Cockroach Bay, in that area, for some 700-plus years.
I mean, thats a big history thats lost, so I said, Well, maybe we could create the Uzita Conservation Overlay of Cockroach Bay. We all know Cockroach Bay is a place to go commercial, recreational fishing, and theres more to the history of that, and we need to understand that. You know, youll getPinellas County had the Weedon Island Preserve Area, and that preserves the history of the Indians that lived there, and we need to do the same thing in Hillsborough County with the Cockroach Bay areamake it an overlay district. It doesnt change the management of it, but it adds to the managementto itby having the consolidation of all of these: youve got the State Park Service, which is DEP; and you have DEP Aquatic Preserve; you have Hillsborough County Parks Department; you have the SWIM Program, ELAPP property. All these properties are owned by government agencies and just make an overlay district of the whole area.
I think it would mean a whole lot to Hillsborough County, and you even haveHillsborough Community College has, an environmental study site there. That could be a great place to create, with the parks department there. But I think we really need toIve been working on it for about seven years, and I havent got the interest up yet, but I think its important that we create this. It wont cost anything; its just an overlay district, but it adds to the history of that area. You know, Ive been a blue crabber on the river there for 39 years, and I still do it. It gives me exercise every day to get out on the river and catch the blue crabs.
But, going back to Tampa Bay, as a kid, I can remember Davis Causeway. Davis, Ben T. Davis, built that causeway it was a private causeway across the bay from the Tampa-Clearwater area. And it was private. He charged a 25 cent toll to cross it, and, as a kid, I can remember going out on the bridge, the big bridge, with family and fishing. Now, you wouldnt think about going out there onits called Courtney Campbell nowout on that bridge; youd get run over by cars! But, back then, the cars didnt go very fast, okay. They werent as big. We wouldmy family would go out there on that bridge, hang off the side, and catch school of jackfish and all kinds of fish. And that was something that you dont see today.
Also, Davis Causeway was a great place to go crabbing. At nighttime, youd see people out there with lanyards catching blue crabs for their, uh, crab chalou, enchilada, whatever you want to call itand just steam blue crabs. That was a big thing back then. You dont have those crabs today. The bay has changed. We dont have the resources that we used to have. Off of Davis Island there were schools of mackerel. You could go out there and catch mackerel and tarpon back then. So the fishing has changed in the bay. We dont mean to influence the bay negatively, but we do. You know, every person that comes here puts a little fertilizer on their yard, puts herbicides and different things, and theywell, actually, that storm water came down the Hillsborough River, goes into the bay.
And so we dont want to impact the bay, but we do. We do, and because you impact the small, little, tiny creatures you dont see, you impact the big creatures. So its been a life-changing experience for me to move down to Little Manatee River and Cockroach Bay area. You have to touch natureyou have to be in touch with itto appreciate it. People that live in the cities dont get a chance to, and if they had the same opportunity I had, theyd learn a whole lot more about the bay.
AH: Lets go, back for just a moment, and talk a little bit more about when you were growing up. You were in the Seminole Heights areaso thats at the north end of Tampa Bay, actually, the Hillsborough Bay area, right? And you went to which high school?
AM: Hillsborough High School.
AH: You went to Hillsborough High School.
AM: Graduated in 55 from Hillsborough.
AH: And what was your early career?
AM: Iworking for the phone company. I retired from GTE, but when I was down in Ruskin I was also crabbing on the side, and gillnet fishing, too. That was something I did on the side, and I liked that better than the phone company, so I retired from the phone company and then went commercial fishing completely.
AH: Sure. When you were growing up in, lets say, in your high school class, can you talk a little bit about what was the attitude of your other classmates, their families, towards Tampa Bay? That wouldve been back in the early 50s, then.
AM: Well, I guess we thought mostly about fishing, you know? We liked to go trout fishing, I can remember. Wed go out on Davis Causeway, okay. Fishing off the bank, catching red fish, and snook, and trout. And my dad, I dont know if you recall the glass crocks that used to salt fish downand beef, and things like thatto keep because of the refrigera We had these big glass crocks in our garage filled up with trout; Dad would catch all these trout; hed salt them downI dont know if we ever ate those trout! I dont know if we ever ate them. My dad was something else. He would make beer. I can remember, he had beer in the garage out there, and youd hear the popcaps popping offstill wasnt aged right.
But, yeah, we all thought about the causeway. As kids wed go out there, partying, and there was always lovers out there necking, you know, on the causeway. But it was, uh going out there and watching the submarine races. We thought about the bay as a place to go swimming and fishing. Thats what your thoughts were. The river was a place where you could go, in the Hillsborough River, fishing with cane pole and catch red fish, bass, andI caught all kinds of fish in there, using worms in river. I can remember we had floods, and the water would come up and cover the areas along the Hillsborough River, and thats why they built the bypass canal. But it had a positive effect: people could live along the river; but it also had a negative effect on the river itself, downstream from the dam.
But no, we didnt have drugs back in those days. You didnt have, uh, the lifestyle that you would say you have today. Everything was slower paced. It was slower paced. Like, going to Hillsborough High Schooleverybody from that neighborhood went to Hillsborough High School. Thats the way high schools were built; you didnt have these mag-schools, where you transfer to a school to get a certain type of education. So it was a real close-knit group, you might say, back in those days. I dont know if its still that way, but, growing up, I was in a Boy Scout troupe34, Jimmy Stokes was the scout masterand we went to the Methodist church where we met at in Seminole Heights. Went to Seminole Grammar School, and then Memorial Junior High School, and then Hillsborough High School. Uh, it was a good life. I had an old Model A Ford, 31 Model A Fordwent to high school with it. I had a lot of fun with that.
AH: You mentioned the river and how diverse the fishing was in it. What caused the construction of the bypass, again? It was, uh, a flood?
AM: We had floods. A lot of water would come down there from rains, and it would back up because the river didnt have a good flow to it. It would back up, and, in a way, I always say you bought all the land along the river, keep the flooding, in case youre going. It wouldve kept the situation better because it wouldve flushed everything out. I can remember Robert Richards, who was a shrimper, telling me that when he first started shrimping, he would go down in the channel between Davis Island and Seddon Island and justnets were loaded up with leaves, oak leavesand he was also catching a lot of shrimp in the bay and a lot of blue crabs in the bay.
But he said that he lost that leaf detritus. That leaf detritus is extremely important because of the bacteria that grows on it, and shrimp and crabs are a leaf detritus feeder, so, in other words, they feed on detritus. So we lost a lot of that and from that flood from way up the river. You know, its interestingI see the benefit of leaf detritus in crabbing in the Little Manatee River. They didnt have a dam in it, okay, theres no dam. And so when you have five, six inches of rain, it takes all the swamps, and its like you took a pressure hose, and you blew all that stuff outyou sent it down the river. Well, its negative to a point. It takes the dissolved oxygen out of the water, but it sends that leaf detritus down, and it breaks down into foods for oysters and shrimp and crabs, and its part of the food chain; its a natural system.
So when you take that out and put a dam up there, you take away that food source, and thats a big impact to waterways by eliminating that food source of leaf detritus. It would fill my traps upcrab traps upthat would be in the water and would fill up, completely fill up, with leaves, and they would not even, uhyou couldnt pull them up. And then once the water couldnt flow through them, they start tumbling; they start tumbling. Ive lost 50 traps in one time, when there was a storm, so every time I have a storm, I have to go up there, get the traps, take them to the bayou someplace and hide it to get away from that storm water.
But, uh, thats how I learned about how much leaf detritus comes downthe tonnage of itby filling these traps up with leaf detritus. It just gets caught in the trap, and it starts rolling, and rolling, and rolling, and rewinds the boat and floats up and buries it in the bottom of the river somewhere. So its part of that food chain now. We think of it as a negative, but its a positive; its a part of the nitrogen flowor the carbon flowthats important to know, of the place, and thats the baythe estuary of the bay.
AH: Youve crabbed now for over, about, 39 years or so. Can you talk a little bit about whats happened with the crab population? Numbers, distribution in the bay, size of the crabs youre catching?
AM: Its an interesting thing. Crabs are, uhIve seen them disappear over the years from when I was a kid to today. And I do catch crabs, not as many as I used to when I first came down to Ruskin. At one time I had, like, three shedder tanks, and now Im down to, like, six little bins of crabs that shed out. So Im not catching the amount of shedders and shedding blue crabsbecause you call them [shedders] when they start to shed, and you call them busters when they start breaking openas I used to. I used to sell all of my soft shells to Seabreeze Restaurant, where Robert Richard was at, but now I dont get very many. Right now because of all the rainwhen you have a lot of rain, it runs all the crabs, ortheyre a brackish feederthey feed on that detritus. They go up the rivers when you dont have rain. When you have a lot of rain, they come down the rivers.
So theyre called beautiful swimmers because theyre always swimming, looking for food. Theyve got these big pinchers, and they may shed out, oh, 25 times in their lifetime. Quite awful when youre little small guys, but, uh, they spawn in the Gulf [of Mexico] or Atlantic [Ocean], but they come back to the estuary, like all the fish do, to feed because of a richer environment of phytoplankton. But in the river itself, when you have a lot of rain, it runs the river crabs down the river, and when it stops raining, they go back up the river. Right now, theyre down the river, and Im seeing mostly male crabs right nowmostly male, and an odd mix of the females. Uh, when you have a drierthe females go out and spawn. The males dont leave the estuary. They stay in the estuary. But the females will continuethey go out to spawn. They may travel up the coast near Panama City, where the biggest spawning area for blue crabs is where they had the BP spill. And, so, they dont know whats going to happen.
This is a big question: how much of an impact is that oil thats on the bottom, going to have with the blue crab spawning? Because thats the biggest area for the spawning of blue crabs, where the BP spill was at. So thats a big worry that theyre concerned aboutwhat impact thats going to make on the species and different kinds of species, too. Uh, yeah, its been quite an experience, being able to touch whats been out there in the bay and see whats there, you know. But in the Hillsborough River we had manatees, when I was a kid growing upmanateesand all the water hyacinths, okay. The bay estuaries used to smellit was because of all the water hyacinths coming down the river, like a flotilla of water hyacinths. And they go out, out of the river, and congregate along the bay shore, and die, and thats where they got the foul smell from, was all those water hyacinths coming out. Thats been eliminated now, so thatsanyway, I enjoyed being in Ruskin.
AH: When you were growing up, uh, in the 50s, you mentioned that, that was the time period when Tampa was really discharging raw sewage into the bay, and, uh
AM: actually it was in the 40s.
AH: in the 40s
AM: when that was happening
AH: And it took some concentrated effort, over time
AH: for the city to change how they processed sewage water. What do you recall in terms of those impacts and how that was affecting the bay?
AM: Well, nutrients are an important part, you might say, of food supply. So the way you had a lot of nutrients going out into the bay, you had a lot of bait fish in the bay, and, you know, I dont know, as a biologist, really, how that affected it. But I know that we had a lot of fish, okay. Now whether the nutrients from the sewer plant were making a positive effect, I dont know, okay. We look at the bay as wanting to clean it up; we want to clean it up, which is understandable. Were seeing sea grass coming back. But I think about the nutrient flow and how that is important to the small fish, and, uh, people come down and say, Hey, fishings great now! You know, they just came in the bay, and they say the fishings great.
They shouldve seen it when I grew up. They shouldve seen it when I grew up because you could catch all the red fish and trout you wanted to, back then, growing up as a kid, and it was easy, you know? The mullet are not like they used to be, I dont think. And, uh, even with the net ban, you know, they stillmaybe its because we catch so many with cast nets, you know? They eliminated the gill nets, but now they catch them with cast nets. Um, but you go further south from Tampa Bay and the fishings great in those areas. But, uh, its not like it used to be, no.
AH: You did touch on a point that other folks who Ive interviewed, uh, have mentioned, frequently, and that is that sea grass is coming back. Lets turn back the clock to when you were growing up. What did you observe about sea grass then, compared to what we see today?
AM: Well, uh, the sea grass Im familiar with, as growing up with, is off of Davis Causeway. And I can remember this thick sea grass.
AH: Was it turtle grass there?
AM: Turtle grass, yes. Off ofyou had the TV towers right there. You know, Davis Causeway is made up of three bridges. Youve got the first little bridge, and you got the big bridge, and then you got the third bridge, and then you had the Rocky Point that stuck out. And we used to go out there off of Rocky point, and between there and going back towards the City of Tampa in that area, it was all turtle grass in there. Catching speckled trout over there was greatgreat fishing, you know? With floats, and shrimp, and there was a big oyster bar out off of Rocky Point. We used to get oysters out there, at that same time. At the same time, they had the chicken cockfights at the end of Rocky Point, at one time I can remember. That wasI didnt grow up in Ybor City where they had a lot of them going on, but at Rocky Point, they did have them still going on there. And uh, but I remember those trout fish. It was fabulous. It was fabulous, back then.
AH: And so, what happened to sea grass over time?
AM: Uh, you know, I dont know. They say it was that the water clarity got bad because of the dredgingback in the 50s, they did a lot of dredging. And that did stir up the bottom. You know, I can remember the shell barges, as a kid. They had the big shell barges in the Hillsborough Riverdown near Columbus Drive, there was a place that had big shell, and they were dredging shell out of the bay. Now, I dont know if it was for the channel, but they did get a lot of oyster shella lot of oyster shell. This whole area was oyster shell. And oysters, thats whats interesting about what I was talking aboutthe succession of oysters to mangrove habitat. Its that they continually grow on top of each other and all up. So thats always been a big part of the bay, is the oyster. But, ah, I guess it was maybe the dredging, you know.
All of Apollo Beach was dredged up to make homes. In fact, in the Wolf Creek area between Ruskin and, uh, Apollo Beach, the state was selling off all this bottomland. And thats how Apollo Beach happened. You know, luckily, they didnt sell off Wolf Creek area. It was this land that was set out there to be bought, and they didnt buy it. And luckily, TECO did not build a power plant in Cockroach Bay. Okay, they had land, uplands, and we were fortunate to buy that land from TECO, and that was a good deal there. Thats part of that Uzita Conservation Area Id like to see created.
AH: Um-hm. Now, in the areas that youve crabbedyouve been in the Manatee River, and then, have you gone further to the North?
AM: I used to crab from Port Manatee all the way up to Apollo Beach, and I got tired of destroying sea grass, crabbing on the shallow end. So back in 2006, I said, Im not going to destroy more sea grass crabbing in shallow water, so I moved strictly into the Little Manatee Riverthe deeper water. The crabs migrate out, in the wintertimethey migrate out into the bay, and so you can move your traps out there. There used to be a lot more crabbers that came into the bay because of crabs, okay. You dont see that. You dont see the migrant people coming from other parts of the state to Tampa Bay to catch blue crabs. At one time, there was a big harvest of blue crabs.
AH: You were, friends and had been supplying crabs to Bob Richards, who owned The Seabreeze. Did you guys talk a lot about what was going on with the shrimp industry as well? His family was
AM: No, I dont
AH: longtime shrimpers.
AM: I know that Robert had the last of the licenses. I think he had the last, uhbecause they banned the shrimping. I dont remember when that took place, but their grandfather did own some of the shrimpers, and he had the last five because he kept payinghe was paying for his license every year. He had the last five shrimp licenses. I dont know whats happened since then with his licenses. Talking to him about how many crabs they were catching, you know, in the bay, shrimpingat the same time, they were shrimpingand how he saw that disappearing, going down, you know. Thats about all I know about the shrimping industry, here in Tampa Bay.
AH: Lets take a break for just a moment, and well be back in a second.
AH: This is Ann Hodgson with the Tampa Bay Oral History Project. Were back with Gus Muench. Gus, welcome back. Gus is a lifelong resident of the Tampa Bay Area and has been a crabber on the bay for over 39 years. Weve talked quite a bit, Gus, about just your observations of the bay, what it was like when you were growing up, what youre seeing out there today, and you mentioned the seawall reefs company that you had opened and patented a seawall reef, ran that company for a while. I know you worked quite a bit with some of the local environmental groups, particularly the Environmental Protection Commission for Hillsborough County. Can you talk a little bit about, uh, some of the work that you did there? You had a grant at one time.
AM: I had a few grants. I had a grant from Tampa Bay Estuary Program, and, that way, we put in reefs at Madeira Beach over in Boca Ciega Bay. In fact, we put in 600 feet of reefs, at Madeira Beach Middle School. The reefs are good in some locations, and in some locations, theyre not. Ive found that, with oysters, that oysters grow good in low impact areas, as far as wave construction. Where you have a lot of waves, youre going to have the oysters being knocked down. I dont know if youve been in Cockroach Bay, the oyster bars, youll see clumps of oysters, and thats because you haveI call itwave-action rocking. That takes the oysters and spreads them: wave-action rocking.
Oysters, theyll grow up, but if you have a lot of wave action, that knocks them down. Thats why you look at an oyster bar with mangroves on it. The footprint is constantly widening; its constantly getting bigger, the footprint of that oyster bar. Its because oysters are continually being moved from one location. If youre ever walking beside an oyster bar, youll find that the sediments right off the oyster bar are solid. Get away from that and its soft in the sea grass. Its because oysters are continually falling; theyve fallen down in the mud, theyve sunk down. Youre actually walking on a substrate thats reinforced by those oysters that are buried along that edge of the seawall, and its right along the edge of the oyster bar that has the mangroves on it.
Um, thats a natural process, so looking at the seawall reefs that I createdthat came about by accident. I was throwing old crab traps off the dock, and I watched the little fish go through itswim through this old crab trap just like you walk through a door, and so, I said, Thats habitat! So I said, Well, maybe I can make something, so I came up with, uh, creating seawall reefs from using polyethylene fencing, which is just a skeleton, like a skeleton of a sponge, and, therefore, the oysters, or barnacles, whatever grows on that, creates a living rock, you might say. Its all porous.
So all of these creatures get down, and then the crabs, then the fish get down in that. Its not like a solid rock, where you only have an outside surface. Its actually a porous surface. Its a porous surface, which serves for fish, and as it completely fills up, then the red mangroves use that porous surface; the roots can go down in that sediment of silt and clay, and thats a good rooting structure for the red mangroves to grow. So that was how, I could say, that the reefs started as habitat for fish. It went from fish to oyster habitat, and then, as oysters break off from that, it creates an oyster bar. In 2006, I built reefs for EPC under the Williams Park pier. It stood 32 inches high off the bottom. You have a good flow in Alafia River. The oysters grew on that.
Today, the reefs are 32 inches highwith oysters. You dont see the reefs anymore; theres a big huge oyster bar under the Williams Park pier. When low tide, water used to go under the pier; today, it has to go around the pier because of the oyster bar. So its interesting that I can create reefs that grow any height I want below the mean high water line with the seawall reefs. And the reefslike I said, the material is just chain-link fence. I had it screwed at a heavy weight, like 50 pounds per 100 foot roll, and then make these seven inch tubes.
The tubes, you can put them together and make any type of reef you want. Its a real simple process, but you have to put them in a location where you have the right water quality. We had a problem back at Boca Ciega Bay with high salinity, wave action, and therefore in Boca Ciega Bay, you have a lot of tunicates. Tunicates grow at a higher salinity than oysters do, so tunicates took over a lot of that reefwhich is an animal that grows. But I put reefs under the hospital pier, and its covered with oysters; theres a big oyster bar there now, which originally, when I was building them, I thought it was fish habitat, and then I found out that, hey, its not fish habitat anymore; its an oyster bar, and therefore you do have fish habitat around those oysters.
But it changed my thoughts on what I thought it was going to be originally, and thats the way things happened. But we put reefs in, like I said, in Apollo Beach, and look at the difference. We have a lot of water movement, you have a lot of nutrients falling through, a lot of food supply, and therefore the oysters can grow good. Alafia River was a great place. At the mouth of the Little Manatee River was a great place; any place you have a lot of water flow and the right salinity, right? Salinity foresters. Um, that makes these habitats, it makes the reefs work great, and its just, the reef material is just a skeleton, just like a skeleton in a sponge, and it works just like a sponge, you might say.
AH: Are you seeing oysters moving up and down the river in a different pattern than you did, perhaps, a couple of decades ago? Has the distribution in the river changed?
AM: I dont notice the difference; its all under water, so I dont see whats on the bottom, but I know that the oysters have been primarily in the same place theyve always been. But oysters need a lot of food; they need a lot of fresh water coming down. They need fresh water thats not polluted. It was interesting; I put in reefs at Davis Island, and one location I put in reefs, originally when I put the reefs in Id take oysters from Cockroach Bay, and Id seed the reefs. I found I didnt need to do that anymore, but Id seed them with oysters. At Davis Island, I had one homeowner that wanted reefs. Well, all they had was barnacles on the seawall, okay. All they had was barnacles. So I said, Well, Im going to put these reefs in, with good oysters from Cockroach Bay and put them in there.
And so, at the same time, I took a scraper and scraped the barnacles off the seawall; I wanted to see what was going to happen. Well, they called me up and said, Well, the reefs are working great; weve got all kinds of fish; Im going to need some more reefs. And so I went back, put some more reefs in, and what was interesting is that seawall now is covered with oysters. It was covered with oysters where I scraped it, and I looked at it, and the oysters were going to the right, and they were going to the leftcovering up the barnacles. And so that was interesting, but at the same time, I was looking at the mouth of the river, where oysters looked like they were stunted; they werent reproducing.
So the question came to my mind, if the polluted waterwhat effect is that going to have on those good oysters I had, that were spawning and going in both directions on the seawall? Would they become sterile, like these oysters at the mouth of the river? Is that going to have a negative impact on those oysters that I brought from Cockroach Bay and put them in Davis Island? So I dont know whats going to happen, but I think theres definitelyI saw an impact from the oysters that were at Davis Island, at the mouth of the river, compared to these good ones that I put in and how they were spawning and reproducing. If you look at oysters, youll see them open up; theyll spit, and youll see a little cloud come out, and Im not sure if thats their spawning at that time, or if its the silt and clay that theyre spitting out, too. Oysters are interesting characters.
AH: Fascinating creatures.
AH: Yeah. We talked earlier about the Uzita preserve, and you gave us a general overview. I wonder if you can talk just a little bit more specifically about what your vision for that area is, you know? What needs to happen, how the Tampa Bay community could embrace that and make that happen.
AM: Well, Tampa Port Authority is the only one who owns bottomland and aquatic preserves. All the other aquatic preserves owned by the statebottomland. The Tampa Port Authority owns that bottomland. And so if we take it and go out to the six-foot where the markers are at, and draw a line, and go all the way down to the Manatee County-Hillsborough County line, come inland, and pick up all the ELAPP, and SWIMthe Hillsborough County Parks Department land, and come back up to the mouth of the Little Manatee Rivertheres a little bit of private that ties into that; that would be excluded.
But youd be picking up two big ending mouths that we dont really think about, and there are the islandsCockroach Island and Little Cockroach Keyyou know, thats important. That historythe Indians lived there; wed be picking up that historythe history of the Indians. I also created whats called the Uzita Walkway Swim Trail. If you take the trail, it means dragging a canoe or kayak along, behind you, and going, from the Manatee County line, all the way up to the mouth of the river. You follow the shoreline. Its solidyou can walk that area.
Theres one place you may have to swim across the channel that comes into Cockroach Bay Road. But, doing that, youre walking in the footsteps of the people who lived there for 700 years! They didnt have the shoes that you got. But you get a different aspect of what it feels like to be an Indian and see the wildlife, you know, the fish and the bird life. Its quite different than a canoe trail. Youre actuallywell, if you got tired youd take your rod reels and your food and put it in a canoe and drag it behind you; when you got to the end, youd get back in your boat and dry up, come back to Cockroach Bay.
Theres a North Trail and a South Trail, but its called Uzita Walkway Swim Trail. I had a scout trip that was going to try it, and the leaders went out there, and they quit. But its not deep, okay; its shallow. But it gives you, I think, an idea of what the Indians felt like. That was paradise! It was actually paradise to those Indians that lived there. They didnt have to chase the deer through the woods; theyd go out and pick up their shellfish and smear their ink on fish out theremanatees
And I really think it was paradise to them; thats why they chose to live there because all of Florida was the same way. All the coastline of Florida had the Indians living on them. And the only reason those two ending mouths are still there is because they werent all land. The ending mouth that Uzita had in Shell Point, they took it away and made road beds out of it, out of the shell. It was piled up there, it was free shell. But the islands had shellthey couldnt get to that, so thats the only reason theyre still there, yeah.
AH: Weve had a great conversation this morning. As we start to close out, what would your message for the residents of Tampa Bay be? What would your suggestions to them be, for the future?
AM: Well, to the people that live on the water, I say, try to protect your shoreline habitat. Thats the one thing Im concerned about. And also, uh, Shoreline Wildlife Corridor applies to any wetlands. You know, think about the wetlands as wildlifedont think of it as just vegetation, but think of the wildlife thats there and how important that is to us.
AH: Well, Gus, thanks so much for being with us here today, with the Tampa Bay Oral History Project. Youve told us so much about the past and about your observations on the Bay, and we really appreciate it.
AM: Thank you.
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