Humble Mullet

It is a beautiful November day along Tampa Bay. The sun is shining and the temperature is well suited for t-shirt and shorts in the cockpit. The local FM station is broadcasting “Live from the Met,” the weekly Metropolitan Opera, with a presentation of Verdi’s Rigoletto. All is right with the world . . . until the arrival of an outboard motor and two fishermen intently scanning the water’s surface for signs of mullet. I am not sure why tens of thousands of mullet enjoy the marina channels between moored boats. My neighbor, and former mullet fisherman, tells me the mullet are smart and avoid the fishermen’s cast nets by swimming under the boats. My theory is that they like Verdi’s music reverberating through the boat’s hull.

While one fisherman steers the boat the other does a graceful pirouette on deck hurling a 12-foot cast net into the channel. He looks like a hammer thrower in a track and field event. The net settles in a perfect circle trapping a school of mullet that have strayed from under the boats and were not fast enough, even with their good vision and speed, to escape the net. Then comes the hard part for fishermen; hauling up nets that can be filled with a hundred pounds of 10- to 20-inch fish. Once aboard, a frenzy of mullet is thrown into a tank on the 20-foot flat-bottomed skiffs and the fisherman carefully organizes his net for the next throw. This fishing goes on late into the night during the spawning season.

While dozens of small boats cruise the marina channels for tell-tale signs of jumping mullet, other fishermen on land are casting their nets off the seawall. It is a frenzied yearly fishing event as mullet leave fresh-water tributaries and coastal creeks off the Tampa Bay estuary heading for the ocean to spawn. There, gazillion eggs are laid and covered by clouds of sperm. Young mullet, about an inch long, then return to the tributaries and coastal creeks to repeat an ageless cycle.

Also tied to the seawall is a trawler that buys the catch leaving fishermen more time for fishing. A welcoming sign on the trawler offers free coffee to the fishermen. With the fishermen, they sort the male and female catch by squeezing their underside to expose the red (eggs) or white (sperm) roe, weigh and record the catch and then store the fish in tanks of ice-chilled water. At the end of the day, the catch is taken to a fish factory for gutting and the all-important step of separating the valuable female roe sack for freezing and air shipment to Japan.

Mullet sorting storing, and weighing

Watching this local and international operation from my cockpit, led me to check prices for the humble mullet in the local and international economy. Fishermen earn $0.20 per pound for male mullet and $1.20 per pound for female mullet. A local fish market in the low-rent district, where mullet was once infamously known as slave food, mullet sell for $1 to $2 per pound. The roe from the female―up to a third of her weight―is sold separately at $7 per pound. According to Alibaba.com, Japanese buy roe at $100 per pound. In the high-rent district, a fish store does not carry the low-end mullet, choosing instead to sell “delicacies” like grouper, snapper, salmon, and mahi-mahi ranging in price from $19 to $25 per pound.

Michael Swindle in Mullethead, points out that the term does not refer to slow-witted fishermen or “trash fish” bottom feeders, but rather those caught up in everything mullet similar to Deadheads endlessly following the Grateful Dead.

And the ageless natural and man-made cycles for the humble mullet continue.

Florida Fish and Wildlife Conservation Commission — Diane Peebles
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