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Date of Issue: January 16, 2008

Mullet split, crabs and grouper doing well

The mullet season is over, and a mediocre one it was. Competition from Brazil didn’t help.

 The mullet have headed out to sea, where the females emit millions of eggs and males fertilize them in sprays. That done, they all head back toward shore to move in schools up and down the coast.

They’re skinny now, empty of the roe that make a living for Cortez fishermen and others along the Gulf Coast. They’re still desirable, these skinnies, but less so than they were when they were fat with roe.

That roe is stripped out of them after they’re brought in by castnet fishers and sold to fish wholesalers such as A.P. Bell Fish Co. in Cortez. The backbreaking castnet method has been the only legal way to catch the fish since a statewide referendum banned gillnetting in 1995. That was equally hard work, but more productive.

Prices were down all season, said Karen Bell, of the family that owns the fish company. A good part of that unwelcome fact is Brazil. Fishermen there have caught on to the value of mullet roe and have worked their own fishery and crowded the market.

Until lately, Cortez had a good grip on the market, which is mainly Taiwan and Europe. Now, mullet roe has caught on strongly across the seafood market - Bell said she had heard of it being featured on television’s food network. The difference between “our” roe and “theirs,” she said, is that Gulf of Mexico mullet lay bright yellow eggs, while their Brazilian cousins’ eggs are a muted yellow. In both cases, the vegetarian fish have similar seagrass menus.

Here, the mullet will begin to “roe up” again about November.

All told, it hasn’t been a great season for mullet fishermen, she said - “Some years the fish do better, some years the guys do better.”

Meanwhile, supplies of stone crabs are high and it’s rated as a good crab season, she said. The season is open until mid-May. 

The Bell Fish Co.’s main product now is grouper, which is doing well and selling for around $4 a pound retail. These delicacies are not controlled by the calendar or by spawning cycles, but by limits of 6,000 pounds per boat per trip. There is a Gulf quota to prevent over-harvest, Bell said, but it hasn’t been reached for the past two calendar years.