Living Sanibel: Striped mullet
The striped mullet once formed the backbone of the Southwest Florida fishing industry. Before the regulation changes that banned the use of gill nets in 1994 there were hundreds of mullet boats working the inshore and near-shore waters of the Gulf. Most of these boats were not interested in the mullet for their meat, but for their roe, which could fetch as much as one-hundred dollars a pound in Japanese fish markets.
Even after the net ban the demand for the roe continued and roe fisherman, using high-speed boats and mullet cast nets, would come into Florida from as far away as south Texas to harvest mullet roe for the Asian markets. There were so many mullet fisherman prying the waters in and around Sanibel and Captiva that the State of Florida stopped issuing permits to harvest mullet to out of state anglers in the early 2000s. On a good night’s catch, a skilled mullet cast netter can make more than $1,000 from the sale of the valuable roe. The fish itself was sold as bait or for use as fish meal.
Mullet eat zooplankton, bottom dwelling organisms and detritus. They consume vast amounts of marine algae and plant waste. They are the grazers of Southwest Florida and form the basis of the food chain in large part created by the falling leaves and detritus of the red mangrove. While the smaller finger mullets (juveniles) are consumed by ladyfish, jacks and a host of other predators, the adult mullet are a favorite target of bottlenose dolphin, sharks, large snook, mackerel and cobia.
A fascinating aspect of the striped mullet is the fact that they jump. These leaping mullet are the fish most often seen in “Ding” Darling. While some people claim that they jump to escape predators, studies have indicated that this is not the case. Other theories involved the removal of parasites from the gills of jumping mullet but that too has not been verified. A more recent theory is that mullet jump to somehow obtain oxygen from the air. The trouble with this theory is that there does not appear to be any physiological mechanism in the fish that would allow it to take in this oxygen. The last theory is that mullet jump simply for the fun of it.
The truth is that no one has yet to be able to explain why mullet jump. They do jump however and generally clear the water by at least a foot, tending to jump in patterns of three consecutive leaps. I have had several striped mullet jump into my jon-boat, with one rather large one hitting me in the chest.
For food, mullet are best smoked as they have an earthy taste similar to freshwater suckers or carp. Being almost entirely herbivores they are nearly impossible to catch on hook and line. Some people claim you can catch them using frozen corn kernels but the thought of baiting a hook with corn seems silly. The best method of catching them is by throwing a special, wide meshed cast net aptly called “a mullet net.” Regular baitfish can swim through it because its mesh is very large and the sinkers used along the perimeter of the net are heavy, causing the net to sink quickly.
Cut mullet is a favorite for tarpon fisherman in the spring and can also be used for shark, cobia and bottom fishing. Mullet fishing is still a viable commercial activity along the west coast of Florida, though not at the same level of harvest it was before the net ban of 1994.
This is an excerpt from Living Sanibel – A Nature Guide to Sanibel & Captiva Islands by Charles Sobczak. The book is available at all the Island bookstores, Baileys, Jerry’s and your favorite online sites.