Billy Alstrom and the crew return to the dock at A.P. Bell Fish Co. in Cortez with a hefty catch of mullet. Islander Photos: Courtesy Karen Bell
Bo Shelton, left, and Rusty Price turn in their mullet catch at the A.P. Bell Docks in Cortez.
Two young fishers clean freshly caught mullet.
Bagged mullet eggs — roe — ready to become bottarga.
Mullet season has begun and fishers are casting nets in hopes of bringing in plentiful loads of the fish — a bounty for Christmas.
Karen Bell of A.P. Bell Fish Co. said that interest in mullet is especially great this season because of last year’s low yield.
“We have buyers from Italy, France, Taiwan, Egypt and elsewhere. Some buyers are flying in, and that’s a clear indication that interest is peaked,” Bell said.
Many have speculated on what caused the low number of fish last season; weather, migration and location of predators are possible reasons. There are many variables involved, the principal one always being weather patterns.
“Last season was also odd in that it ran through February, where it typically runs from early mid-December to early January. It never really picked up though, despite the length,” Bell said.
It looks like the hopes of fishers and buyers will be rewarded this year. Bell said there have been some good runs recently, and many report the great numbers of mullet, as well as mullet boats, in bay and Gulf of Mexico waters.
So what is it that makes local mullet such a highly sought after fish, and why is Cortez the place to go to, often from across the globe for the catch?
“The fish are plentiful, healthy and delicious, and the size and color of the mullet in many places, North Carolina and Louisiana for example, do not compare with that of the mullet found here,” Bell said.
There is another, perhaps greater culinary appeal to the mullet than its meat though — and that is mullet roe.
At present, Bell is paying $1.40-$1.50 per pound for female mullet, and $0.15 per pound for males. The value of the female’s eggs, the roe, is what causes such a disparity in price.
“Mullet roe is a form of caviar,” Bell said.
The roe, also known as bottarga, is sun-dried and pressed into hard sheets, ideal for grating over salads or slicing onto crackers. The technique is practiced throughout the world, and is a process familiar to folks in Cortez.
“The old Southerners have done it for a long time, just as they do in Europe and Asia,” said Bell.
However, no one in the Cortez area was trained to press the roe, so it was necessary to send it to Asia in order to have the process done.
That is, until now.
Seth Cripe, a former Island resident — he grew up here and first had his interest in culinary endeavors sparked when he began working at the Beach Bistro as a teen — and winemaker who is co-owner of LLV Vineyards, is the first to be trained to prepare bottarga locally.
So the effort to market mullet roe as a delicacy has become stronger on a local basis.
“Bottarga has been very popular among Cortezians since far back, but many Americans have otherwise not been aware of what it is, how good it is, and how good it is for you,” said Ed Chiles, owner of the Sandbar, Beachhouse and Mar Vista restaurants.
There’s never a guarantee that mullet season will be a success. One can only watch as the fishers do their work. Bell feels confident either way, though.
“It’s great to know that Cortez — this tiny, little fishing village — is making its mark on the world with the quality and flavor of its mullet and roe,” she said.