CORTEZ –The arrival of a cold front and a drop in barometric pressure and changing tidal patterns provided commercial fishermen their first significant mullet run of the season last week.
“Monday night we had a pretty good hit – maybe 30,000 to 40,000 pounds,” A.P. Bell Fish Company office manager Karen Bell said Friday afternoon. “And last night we had 150,000 pounds.
Monday was the little run, but this was the major run.”
A run consists of mullet traveling from Sarasota Bay and other inland waters, passing through Longboat Pass and other outlets and into the deeper waters of the Gulf of Mexico, where the higher water pressure found at greater depths releases their eggs – an occurrence known as spawning.
“The fish go out the pass, and that’s when the guys catch them,” Bell said.
Fishing in the Gulf of Mexico, west of the Longboat Pass Bridge, fishermen drop cast nets to a depth of about 30 feet, where they remain submerged for a few minutes before being pulled up.
A.P. Bell and Cortez Bait & Seafood are the two working fish houses and processing facilities in Cortez. They are paying fishermen $1.40 a pound for female mullet and 15 cents a pound for males.
Saturday afternoon, Cortez Bait and Seafood owner John Banyas was out of the office and unable to provide specific numbers, but he said they had 40 to 50 boats bringing in mullet last week. His staff worked until 4 a.m. Friday morning processing Thursday’s catch.
“We had good first run,” he said. “The season was running late and we hadn’t had any cold snaps yet. Hopefully we’ll get a few more good runs this year. It looks like it’s going to be a good season.”
The prize catch for mullet fishermen is the red roe (the eggs) produced by females. Referred to as “poor man’s caviar,” red roe is considered a delicacy in some foreign countries.
Friday afternoon, workers at A.P. Bell formed an assembly line, filleting the female fish and removing the egg sacks, with buyers from Egypt, Italy and Taiwan already bidding on the red roe.
“Whoever bids the highest price will get the fish,” Bell said.
Last year, female eggs sold for $14 a pound. As for the rest of the fish, Bell said she already sold 50,000 pounds of “food-grade gutted mullet” to a buyer in Haiti.
“We ship them to Romania, Haiti and South America, where they are valued more because it’s an inexpensive source of protein,” she explained.
“A lot of Americans look at mullet as a ‘trash fish.’ They’re wrong, but they’ve never been introduced to it properly,” mentioning that mullet fillets can be purchased at the Starfish Co. Seafood Market next door.
Comparing the 2012 season to last year, Bell said, “Usually we have a run right after Thanksgiving but this year we did not. There were less fish than last year, but it was more manageable. Last year people were throwing the white roe, the male fish, overboard because the fish houses were at capacity.
“This year we’re getting both males and females. With a little over 100,000 pounds, we were able to process everything with no problems. During that big run last year, we had over 200,000 pounds. It was overwhelming, and the fish houses were overrun with fish.”
Bell then said, “I’m really glad the boats have worked hard not to throw the male fish away. There is a huge price disparity, so you can understand why they would. Last year, the county and the public were upset with all the waste. I would counter that it wasn’t really waste because it goes back into the eco-system, and you’re feeding the crabs and the smaller fish, but on a mental level people don’t like to see dead fish floating. It’s not good for the industry.”
Docked alongside A.P. Bell Friday evening, commercial fishermen Ken and Pickett (no last names given) unloaded their day’s catch, which Pickett estimated to be between 400 and 500 pounds.
“It’s been a little slow, but it’s early, Pickett said. “Last year was an awfully big year.”
Later that night, commercial fisherman Brett Hitchcock relaxed at the Swordfish Grill after a hard day’s work. Still wearing the white rubber boots that are a trademark of commercial fishermen, Hitchcock said the boat he works on brought 6,400 pounds of mullet into Cortez Bait & Seafood Thursday night.
“The fish houses are paying for the males,” he said. “If the season keeps moving the way it is, I believe it will be a good season.”
Hitchcock said he was taking the weekend off, but he planned to be out fishing again Tuesday, when weather conditions were expected to produce another run.