"THEY TELL US WHEN WE DO WRONG. THEY DON'T TELL US WHEN WE DO RIGHT."
» Earl Roloff, Bradenton
“Mullet fishing is hard. It’s hard, hard work,” said Roloff, 68, a lifelong fisherman. “These young guys, they can do it. And they earn every penny they make.”
The Pinellas crew left shore Friday at 6 p.m. in a 19-foot skiff. After motoring 6 miles, they needed roughly four hours to net 1,500 pounds of mullet. “We know when we have 1,500 pounds,” said Lipert, 25, from St. Petersburg.
“We know exactly because we’ve been doing this a really long time.”
Success in mullet fishing came early for Lipert. “I got a $6,000 check when I was 12, and I was hooked,” he said. Lipert was 19 when he landed a 9-foot bull shark off the St. Pete Pier using stingray for bait, 100-pound fishing line and 2 hours of stamina.Schwarzkopf, 42, from Dunedin said the team was fishing for four nights in a row. “No sleep,” he said, retrieving an iced mullet. He threw the mullet from the boat he calls Lilly into a bin for females. A bin for males was also filling up fast.
One by one, the crew separated the mullet. Everything was by the book, they said. “We don’t want a $5,000 fine from the FWC for not using the right ice,” Lipert said.
The mullet industry is regulated by the state Fish and Wildlife Conservation Commission. Fingers pointed at commercial fishermen Christmas Day when dead mullet in the thousands washed up on Anna Maria Island. Besides the waste, the fish kill was bad PR for some of the most popular beaches in the U.S.
“We didn’t throw one fish back,” Lipert said. “We try to keep all of them. If we start getting really, really loaded down, or to where it’s getting to that point, then we’ll start letting them go.”
A skiff such as Lilly can handle only so much weight. A theory is the Christmas Day fishermen dumped the males to lighten their load and returned to fishing for more valuable females with red roe.
“That load can sink your boat,” Lipert said.
But prices are not so good this year. The Lilly was expecting $1.20 a pound for the females – roughly half the peak price last year – and possibly 15 cents a pound for the males. The price can vary daily and sometimes “depends on who you are and how good you’re in with the fish house,” Lipert said.
“They don’t have the Japanese market anymore,” Roloff said.The mullet run is November to January. Red roe from Southwest Florida is hugely popular in Asia and parts of Europe. Exported to Asia and Europe, the roe is salted and dried into delicacies such as karasumi and bottarga.
With economies improving in Asia, sales were expected to jump, just like mullets do, especially around the Chinese New Year in February.
“If it was coming back, they wouldn’t turn a boat away from any of these damn fish houses,” Roloff said.
Florida’s commercial mullet catch is between 8-9 million pounds annually, including an estimated 5 million in southwest waters, according to state researchers. Before gill nets were banned in 1995 for conservation, the catch was often more than 20 million pounds.
In 60 years of fishing, Roloff knows his way around nets. He acknowledges the FWC rules are clear. But Roloff said gill nets help preserve the fishery, not the other way around.
“We need to go back to gill-netting, and you eliminate this,” Roloff said, handling a small mullet. “The gill net is a very selective way to fish.”
“They only catch big fish,” Lipert said.
“It only will catch what you want to catch,” Roloff said. “If you catch with a 41/8- or a 4¼-inch mesh, that mullet will go through it. About a quarter of the fish will go through it. And they’ll live.”
“We won’t catch one white roe in a 4¼-inch net,” Lipert said. “Not one.”
“You can believe me or not. In Florida you’re limited to a 2-inch mesh on a seine,” Roloff said. “If you put that seine around something, you’re going to kill everything on the inside of it. So you’re killing all the juvenile fishes. You put a gill net out there, it’s a more selective way of fishing. … You could eliminate the waste.”
Roloff said commercial fishermen lack effective organization and are struggling for a living under the weight of government regulations.
“I don’t think anybody speaks for us anymore, I really don’t,” Roloff said. “They tell us when we do wrong. They don’t tell us when we do right. They need to put somebody on a boat who knows something about fishing.
“I’m going home now. I’ve spouted off enough.”