Europeans have fished for mullet since the time of the ancient Greeks. Called Mugal by the Romans, mullet remains a culinary mainstay throughout the Mediterranean.
The Calusa Indians centered their culture on fishing, with mullet being an important food source. Nets were made with palm fibers and the Calusa are often considered the Gulf Coast’s original net fishermen.
By the mid 1700s, the Mullet fisheries of coastal Cuba were severely depleted. In search of new waters, the Cubans journeyed north to the untouched Florida Gulf coast during the winter months for inshore net fishing. They were considered the first true commercial fishermen in the area from Tampa Bay to Pine Island Sound.
By the late 1800s, the railroads and “fish ice” revolutionized SW Florida’s fishing industry. Fishermen would bring their mullet to the fish houses to be put on ice and delivered to the railhead where they would be packed into box cards.
At the end of the 19th century the railroad line was extended south to Punta Gorda. The first commercial shipment North was mullet with 17 box cars filled with salted mullet for the New York market.
During WWII, Florida produced record amounts of mullet for the war effort with over 50 million pounds netted and added to the food supply.
In 1947, President Truman announced a plan to help a devastated post-war Europe, calling on Americans not to eat meat on Tuesdays as a way to save the world’s grain supply. Mullet was cleverly branded as “Truman Turkey” as it became a good substitute on Meatless Tuesdays.
By the late 80s, the price for mullet’s prized roe climbed to over $11 per pound causing a run on the market. Out-of-state fishermen looking for a quick jackpot came to compete with local mullet fisherman. The bays became overrun with mullet boats and discarded male mullet washed up on the shores and in canals.
State officials and a coalition of recreational fishermen were concerned that the mullet fisheries, an important food source for gamefish, might be irreparably damaged and decided to act. In November 1994, the voters of Florida approved a constitutional amendment (commonly known as the net ban) that eliminated the use of gill and other entangling nets within inshore state waters.
Thousands of commercial fishermen throughout the state of Florida had to adapt to new gear, invest in other fisheries or abandon fishing all together.
The mullet spawning ratio in Florida rebounded, growing from 26% in the late 80’s and early 90’s to 45-50% in 2016.
With the global population predicted to grow rapidly to 9 billion in 2050, the world is going to need more protein that is likely to come from sustainable aquaculture. Mullet is a perfect candidate for this.