A steady decline in the mullet catch may have hit rock bottom over the past year in the gulf inlets of South Florida, where once they were prevalent.

The typical mullet run is months long, from November to January and even into February, when females with red roe fetch the best prices. Emphasis on typical.

“This year our season was literally days. No fish,” said Eddie Barnhill, a third-generation fisherman and owner of Barnhill Seafood Market on Florida’s Pine Island. “We didn’t even have a season, really,” echoed Mike Dooley, a Pine Island fisherman who for years has gone out for mullet only.

Manatee was the only county that logged triple digits in pounds for roe season this year, accounting for 615 pounds, less than 10 percent of a 2011 high of 6,284 pounds.

Low landings hit the industry especially hard after fishermen have spent the past several years on rebranding campaigns, upping the market value of mullet throughout the region. Karen Bell of Star Fish Seafood in Cortez, a community in Manatee County, described the roe season as awful.

Non-roe mullet fishing wasn’t much better, if at all. “Normally we’d be on a limit this time of year, at 300 or 400 pounds a day, but I’m down about 50 percent,” said Dooley. Dooley and Barnhill had no doubt that tremendous problems with red tide and blue-green algae were to blame this year.

“I’ve seen fish on a grass flat, made a big circle to come around and by the time I got back, they’d started spinning. Dying,” Dooley said. “The next day everything on that bank was dead.”

“All the buyers I spoke to, it was slow all over,” Barnhill said. Manatee County so far this year has hauled in 74,992 pounds of black mullet; Pinellas County is at 73,998 and Lee County has 67,671. Manatee’s were worth more, at 83 cents on average, compared with Pinellas’ 76 cents and Lee’s 53 cents. What little roe was found ranged from $4 to $9 a mound.

It would all be enough to depress Dooley. “But I’m 66, and retired,” he said. Still, he goes out three or four days a week, and prays for clean water and better seasons ahead.

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