Those who decided to take a stroll on the beach Christmas Day had to dodge hundreds of dead fish littering the island shoreline.
The dead mullet were cast off by fishers who were netting near shore.
“It’s not the commercial fishing industry. (Seasonal fishers) are catching these mullet and throwing out the white roe mullet,” said Capt. Kathe Tupin-Fannon.
Tupin-Fannon is a fourth generation Cortez fisher who runs sight-seeing charters from docks at the Star Fish Co. in Cortez. Tupin-Fannon said fishers come to Manatee County from across the state during the annual mullet run.
In the fall, as temperatures drop, mullet school and begin a migration pattern tied to their reproduction cycle. As the mullet bunch up, a frenzy begins for cast-netters.
Adding to the allure for fishers is a higher probability of legal-sized, sexually mature fish.
While male and female fish are caught, sold and eaten, the red roe in the female mullet is the real catch, netting more than five times the usually price per pound.
Tupin-Fannon said there are two main sources for the dead fish onshore: the number of seasonal fishers and the nets they use.
“Everybody and their brother stops what they’re doing three months of the year to throw these cast nets. These cast nets pillage and rape these waters, which is exactly what the commercial fishing industry was accused of,” she said.
Tupin-Fannon referred to the 1995 gill-net ban passed by Florida voters to promote sustainable fishing practices. The commercial fishing industry has challenged the rule, contending it fails the intent and it’s been in and out of courtrooms for almost 20 years.
She said the fishers of Cortez crafted their own gill nets that allowed smaller fish to swim free of the net, reducing bycatch and massive fish kills. The 1995 net ban restricts mullet fishing to hand-thrown cast nets.
Tupin-Fannon said the smaller, less effective cast nets “kill everything.”
Cortez mullet fisher Mark Coarsey said at the beginning of the season he had seen more fishers in Cortez this year than in any other year.
Coarsey also speculated the fish kill was due to visiting fishers. He said he’s seen some unfamiliar fishers checking the mullet for either white or red roe and tossing the male fish overboard.
“Just wait and watch for all those dead fish to wash ashore,” Coarsey said at the start of season.
Coarsey said visiting and seasonal fishers are either unaware or do not care about the consequences. He added that such practices reflect badly on an already strained industry in Manatee County.
“Commercial fishermen know how to protect the resource so it’s sustainable,” he said. “This is just disgusting.”
According to an email from Carmine Demilio, operations manager for Manatee County’s property management department, the county-owned beaches at Coquina, Manatee Public Beach and Anna Maria Bayfront Park were fish-free by the afternoon of Dec. 26. County employees were sent to the beaches with pickup trucks and shovels to remove the fish.
“The beaches are spotless. Staff have been working diligently on this cleanup. We will continue to monitor and clean up as needed,” Demilio wrote in the email.
Bradenton Beach Mayor Bill Shearon suggested to county officials that visiting fishers be given fliers or trash bags to make them cognizant of the fish-kill aftermath.
“As far as the FWC is concerned, it’s not illegal to throw the white roe fish overboard,” Shearon said. “This is where I have to stick up for our local fishers. They have the common courtesy not to throw dead fish overboard.”
Shearon added that a recent full moon and accompanying high tide brought an abundance of fish farther up the shore.
“It’s unfortunate. We respect (the fishers) way of life, and they should respect ours,” he said.
“But hey, now you can come to Bradenton Beach for fresh sushi and we don’t charge you for it,” he added with a chuckle.