Florida fishermen have been hard at work elevating the local mullet to its rightful place among good-eating fish, but that market is hard to manage when the fishery hits a downward turn.

Eddie Barnhill, the third generation of Barnhill Fisheries on Southwest Florida’s Pine Island, has been frustrated for the past few years and said this one in particular, has been “absolutely terrible.”

“I’ve worked my butt off the last couple of years working up a market for these mullet and all of a sudden now the market’s built, and I can’t supply them… And then you lose your market again,” he said.

Longtime mullet fisherman Mike Dooley confirmed Barnhill’s assessment. Dooley has been plying Pine Island Sound for the finfish for more than 20 years — like his father before him, and now, like his son, Shane. He has had a disappointing year so far, too. “This year, landings have been down about 60 percent over last year,” Dooley said.

Both Dooley and Barnhill blame the water quality, specifically red tide.

“We’ve had a lot of red tide this year that killed a lot of fish. They’re out there dying now,” Dooley said on a grim morning in early June.

The traditional mullet run around Southwest Florida from roughly December to January was meager.

“It’s like the fish kind of skipped our area,” said Dooley. “And they never came back. The ones that are here aren’t getting fat like they usually do. Here in June they look like March mullet. They don’t have any belly on them whatsoever.”

“I haven’t looked at exact numbers,” said Barnhill, “but on an average year we’ll take in a couple hundred thousand pounds in the winter, and this year we didn’t even do 30,000.”

The most Barnhill paid on the dock this year was $1.15 a pound for whole fish. Dooley said the average he got was 85 cents a pound.

Karen Bell of A.P. Bell wholesalers and Star Fish seafood company reported that she paid at most $1.25 in season for females with roe and 20 cents a pound for males in the Cortez, Fla., area. The last two years have seen weak Florida landings from her viewpoint near Bradenton, she said.

Although she normally relies local fishermen for mullet, she bought most of her supply from northern Florida and particularly North Carolina operations this year because the stock there was plentiful, Bell said.

Statewide, landings data for 2018 at midyear in Florida were just over 1.6 million pounds of black mullet, black mullet roe and silver mullet, compared to nearly 7.3 million pounds in 2017.

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Dayna Harpster is a Florida-based freelance writer.

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