The dead fish that washed up in Anna Maria Island early Christmas Day revealed more than the underbellies of mullets along several miles of beaches. At roughly 10 cents a pound the male mullets were not worth the extra weight.
The scene is not uncommon this time of year. “I’ve seen it happen before, let’s put it that way,” said Lt. Rex Beach of the Manatee County Marine Rescue Division, a lifeguard in Anna Maria for 37 years.
Mullets estimated in the thousands littered Anna Maria from Coquina Beach to north of Manatee Beach. County workers and volunteers combined on a cleanup effort.
Beachgoers in Anna Maria seemed mostly unfazed at some grim reminders Friday, including a group that built a tall sandcastle framed by dead mullets at Manatee Beach. Early suspicions that red tide was behind the fish kill were quickly dismissed.
The closest bloom was in the Keys, according to the Fish and Wildlife Conservation Commission.
“It’s a seasonal thing that’s going on,” Beach said. “What appears to be going on is the female mullet are the desirable ones with the red roe. They seem to be culling the fish and throwing the males back in the water. And [the males] have been sitting in the boat long enough that they’ve expired.”Local residents seem adapted to occasional fish dumping by small sector of commercial fishermen.
“Not red tide at all,” said Tommy Daniels, a well-known local surfer. “It’s the bycatch from the mullet run. Discarded roe fish from the netters.”
The mullet run is November to January. Red roe from mullets, especially the species in Southwest Florida, are hugely popular in Asia and parts of Europe. Last year a pound of mullet with a golden egg sac fetched roughly $2.10 to $2.40 a pound.
On a good day an average commercial fisherman can net 1,500 pounds. But prices are down sharply this year, according to mullet fishermen in Cortez Village. A pound was worth $1.10 to $1.20, and males were worth 10-15 cents a pound. The lower prices possibly reflect a robust mullet run.
(In Cortez Village, Anna Maria native Seth Cripe has cut out the middlemen with the Anna Maria Fish Company, the only U.S. producer of bottarga.)
Not all fishermen are following the rules, however. Some are breaking the law. The Christmas Day event on Anna Maria and others offer examples.
State officials received multiple complaints during the 2011-2012 mullet run, an FWC spokeswoman pointed out. Large amounts of dead fish were thrown overboard and washing up, fouling beaches. In a legal reminder to commercial fishermen, the FWC issued a notice:
“Mullet is a food fish and the take of mullet and its roe is regulated by Florida statute and rules. The take of mullet, and other food fish, from the waters of this state, that is not being used, requires the immediate release and return of such fish alive to the water.”
Beach was reluctant to categorize the severity of the Christmas Day fish kill.
“It’s not abnormal,” Beach said. “I’ve seen it before.”