A region's love affair with mullet Staple: Outsiders often laugh at the mention of the fish. But along Florida's Gulf Coast, mullet is a dish that families have enjoyed for generations.

SUN JOURNAL

February 21, 1999|By Stephanie Shapiro | Stephanie Shapiro,SUN STAFF

SANIBEL ISLAND, FLA — "The mullet is an unjustly maligned creature."

--From "Mulletheads," by Michael Swindle

SANIBEL ISLAND, Fla. -- As he guides visitors through the watery mangrove forests of J. N. "Ding" Darling National Wildlife Refuge, naturalist Dan Underhill asks them to pretend they are in a school of mullet.

The kayaking tourists chortle. Perhaps they are the "Yankees or stuck-up Southerners" described in Michael Swindle's book "Mulletheads" who think the mullet is a "trash fish," a lowly bottom feeder without redeeming qualities.

To Underhill, born on Sanibel, the mullet is king.

Gobbling algae and decayed material that drops from the gnarled mangrove trees, vegetarian mullet cleanse the ecosystem. They serve as a food source for snook, dolphin, tarpon and other local predators. Found primarily along the Florida and Alabama Gulf Coast, striped mullet (Mugilidae cephalus, or "sucker head") are an ecosystem linchpin.

And fried or smoked, Underhill knows, a mess of mullet makes a fine Thanksgiving or Christmas feast. Of those people, particularly affluent newcomers to Sanibel, who turn their noses up at mullet's strong taste, he says: "It's really strange. [They] are looking to eat fish that doesn't taste like fish."

The long, slender fish has been a family staple for generations. Underhill's late grandfather was a commercial mullet fisherman. Underhill grew up immersed in the rich folklore the mullet has inspired as an ungainly but vital mascot presiding over seafood festivals, old fishing villages and regional celebrations like the annual Flora-Bama Mullet Toss.

In his brief life Underhill, 26, has seen the mullet industry, once Florida's largest fin fishery, transformed. At one time you could "walk on mullet," the locals would say. Half a century ago, 50 million pounds of mullet were caught annually in enormous gill nets. From Gulf Shores, Ala., south to Apalachicola, Cortez and Pine Island in Florida, a community's livelihood often depended largely on mullet.

Mullet was a good, cheap source of protein and was shipped by truck to fish stores in low-income neighborhoods across the deep South. It was also delectable. In "Cross Creek," Marjorie Kinnan Rawlings' 1942 account of a rural Florida community, she describes a grocery store where "strings of smoked mullet" hang among cheeses, hams, a sack of lump sugar and other provisions.

Like salmon, mullet travel distances to spawn -- but from fresh water to salt, instead of the reverse. From October to January, mullet move offshore from the west coast into the Gulf of Mexico, and from the east coast into the Atlantic. "They swim 50 to 100 miles offshore to spawn," says Behzad Mahmoudi, a research scientist with the Florida Marine Research Institute in St. Petersburg.

Mullet, which can subsist in fresh, brackish or salt water, take their spawning cue from the onset of cold weather, a habit that makes them easy to catch. Changes in temperature and barometric pressure tell fishermen it's time to throw out their nets.

With the coming of a cold front, Mahmoudi has seen dozens of boats congregating at the mouth of the Manatee River, waiting for the arrival of enormous schools of mullet, which leap together and smack their tails on the water in a display called a "shower." At one time, a fishermen parked at the river could net 6,000 pounds of mullet daily.

Pressure on the mullet fishery grew in the 1970s, when it was discovered as an abundant source of red roe, an Asian delicacy. Roe was also a traditional New Year's gift exchanged by Taiwanese and Japanese men who prize it as an aphrodisiac. Mullet's spawning season was perfectly timed to meet the Asian market's demand for the Viagra of the sea.

In a matter of years, mullet prices skyrocketed from 25 cents to $2 per pound, Mahmoudi says. No regulations limited the mullet take until early 1989, about the time that people began "noticing that they couldn't walk on mullet anymore."

It took an extended battle between commercial and recreational anglers, and a state constitutional amendment banning gill nets above a certain size, to control overfishing. The ban, which limits cast nets and seine nets to 500 square feet, took effect in 1995.

More important, it made a difference in the mullet population. Today, there's a "major, major rebuilding process going on," Mahmoudi says. The total mullet population is rebounding, including the stocks of mature females, the source of roe.

But as mullet numbers grow, the fish's economic role dwindles. Fishermen complain that the ban has caused the Florida mullet industry to lose ground to the more lightly regulated Georgia, Louisiana and North Carolina fisheries. And because the net ban coincided with the Asian economic crisis, Mahmoudi says, mullet prices dropped instead of rising with the scarcity of roe, as one would have expected.

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