The hits just keep on coming against mullet fishermen in the Gulf of Mexico hub of southwest Florida: low production of roe mullet this past winter; a covid-depressed international market; and, lately, a red tide bloom in the Fort Myers area.

“We didn’t have a lot of buyers because of the covid,” said Roy Kibbe, who operates St. James City Fish Co. on Pine Island. “Our production was maybe a third of what we usually do. Boat prices never got over 80 cents. A lot of fishermen didn’t fish.”

During previous peak roe mullet seasons, which generally run from November through February, boat prices hovered around $1.75.

Conversely, Kibbe said the domestic restaurant and retail market for non-roe mullet is strong.

“We’re buying at $1 and selling it at $1.15,” he said.

But he and other fishermen are keeping a wary eye on an emerging red tide bloom near their home waters at the mouth of the Caloosahatchee River, which he says causes the fish to move offshore and disperse. A devastating red tide outbreak there in 2018 affected marine life along 100 miles of the coast.

Further north in Cortez, Fla., Karen Bell — operator of A.P. Bell Fish Co. — said she didn’t sell her first shipment of roe to Asia until April.

“Europe didn’t buy any. Africa and Mauritania are producing so cheaply that it’s hard for the U.S. to compete,” Bell said. “It’s hard when it’s become a global fishery and other countries are producing for way less than our fishermen are accustomed to getting.”

Bell said the average boat price for roe mullet was about 65 cents — about half the price of a normal year. She said about 40 boats targeted mullet in her part of the gulf; usually the fleet numbers about 100.

“I’m assuming it’ll be a little better when covid subsides,” she said.

Meanwhile, Bell is in the market for non-roe mullet, but she said they are hard to find.

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Sue Cocking spent more than 20 years as the outdoors writer at the Miami Herald, covering everything from commercial and recreational fishing to powerboat racing and scuba diving. She once worked as a light-tackle charter boat fishing captain in Key West and had an 18-year career in radio news broadcasting. She lives in Sebastian, Fla.

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