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Mullet Mavens

A varied group of visionary professionals is at the forefront of movement to raise the awareness and appreciation of this highly versatile, sustainable fish. These are some of the people who are leading the way:

Eddie Barnhill
Eddie Barnhill Barnhill Fisheries — Matlacha, FL
Eddie Barnhill

A third generation Pine Islander, Eddie Barnhill, Jr., owns and operates one of the main fish houses on the island. At age six, he was given his first mullet fishing boat to run around within certain boundaries from his St. James City home. Now, he has a son about that age, but he wouldn’t consider sending him out in his own boat.

“He loves the water but I wouldn’t dare send him out there on his own boat,” he says. “There’s just too many, too many fast boats going around. And, people that don’t have experience on the water.”

While his family has seen a lot of change since his grandfather was one of the first five families on the island, he also sees potential within that change for mullet to become known as a delectable seafood. That’s why he’s an active advocate for getting chefs to try it – in Miami, New York and right across the street in Matlacha at the Blue Dog Bar and Grill.

“It’s just a matter of the people finally getting to where they’ll eat it, and I guess block whatever mental problem it is with mullet out of their mind,” he says. “It’s a good tasting fish. And, that’s the bottom line.”

HIS VISION:

“I believe truly from my heart and I would give anything for it to happen so I could say ‘Hey guys go fishing, catch all you can catch so then we all make money now.’ Now they’re happy, they’re making money. They’re doing what they love to do. I’m selling it. I‘m making a little money. And now the consumers getting it, and everyone sees that mullet is actually a good fish to eat.”

Chef Jesse Tincher
Chef Jesse Tincher Blue Dog Bar & Grill — Matlacha, FL
Chef Jesse Tincher

When Jesse Tincher opened the Blue Dog Bar and Grill in Matlacha in August of 2014, islanders prodded him to put mullet on the menu.

“I said what are you talking about? Mullet’s a bait fish. Nobody eats mullet. And, so semi-reluctantly I put it on the menu and started selling it, selling a lot of it,” he says.

Having been trained as a chef in Miami, Tincher didn’t have any experience with the fish that had been a mainstay for Pine Islanders for generations.

“You can do a lot with it besides just fry it, blacken it. And, I think it deserves more respect than that. And, for a lot of people out here, mullet’s their livelihood,” he says. “And so I get to show them that we appreciate what you do.”

Now, he’s one of mullet’s most creative visionaries, celebrating the iconic Pine Island fish every Monday.

“I came up with Mullet Madness Monday. And I come up with different ideas like I’ve done a Jamaican Me Crazy Mullet. I made a Jamaican brown stew, put it over fried mullet with coconut rice and peas and sweet plantains. I’ve made a smoked mullet empanada. I’ve made smoked mullet spring rolls,” he says.

He’s so smitten by mullet and its culinary potential, that Tincher has it on the menu every day. And, he’s continually coming up with new ways to serve it. Having his restaurant right across the street from Barnhill Fisheries keeps him stocked with the increasingly popular menu item.

“I tell people that’s how fresh it is -- look it’s coming right off his boat, into the basket, right over here every day.”

HIS VISION:

“It’s a very versatile fish. It’s very healthy. It’s not just some old cracker kind of fish. I’m trying to get it out there that you can do a lot with it and do my part to help get the word out about mullet and how great it is.”

Kevan Main, Ph.D.
Kevan Main, Ph.D. Mote Aquaculture
Research Park
Kevan Main, PhD

As a leading expert in sustainable aquaculture methods, Kevan Main has been in charge of Mote Marine’s research programs on ways to produce marine fish, sturgeon, shrimp, abalone and coral since 2001.

“One of the things that we really need in this country is to produce more of the seafood that we consume. Today we import over 91% of the seafood that we eat,” she says. “Today, over 50% of the seafood that’s eaten around the world is produced in aquaculture. And yet in our country we’re currently only producing about 5% of the aquaculture seafood that’s consumed.”

When it comes to mullet, she advocates for aquaculture alongside the historical method of net fishing.

“A fish like mullet could be produced in both ways. We could increase the stocks and fish more and provide more of a great fish. It’s a local species, it’s available in our waters, but there isn’t a lot of it available on our current restaurant menus,” she says.

While aquaculture often gets a bad rap compared to wild caught, Main’s research explores ways to make the “farmed” fish healthy and sustainable.

“Some people think that there’s concerns about the quality of that seafood, that it’s not as clean as say wild caught fisheries or that maybe they’re not being fed a diet that is as good for them as what they’re going to eat in nature,” she says. “What we’re trying to do is recreate the environment that they grow best on in nature.”

HER VISION:

“With aquaculture, there’s an opportunity to be able to produce fish anywhere. The key is that you do have to be able to provide the right environmental conditions. So if we’re producing mullet in an area that’s within their home range, for example, they extend clear up into the Carolinas and throughout the Gulf of Mexico. And, so you could produce mullet in any of those coastal states and still get that product to market in the United States.”

Ken Leber, Ph.D.
Ken Leber, Ph.D. Fisheries & Aquaculture,
Mote Marine Laboratory
Ken Leber, PhD

Since 1996, Ken Leber has led the fisheries ecology and enhancement program at Mote Marine Laboratory in Sarasota, where he studies the biology, conservation and behavior of fishes.

Having grown up in the Chesapeake Bay, he developed a taste for oily fish.

“I fell in love with that taste. So, from my perspective, mullet is a great fish. And, I think that one of the challenges we have in creating sustainable fisheries is moving people’s interest in fish down a couple trophic levels,” he says. “Some of the most popular fishes are high up in the food chain. The interesting thing to me, with mullet as a food fish is that it is very low in the food chain.”

When it comes to stock enhancement of mullet, Leber sees tremendous opportunity because of the mullet’s ability to tolerate both saltwater and freshwater.

“We can grow mullet and stock them into fresh water lakes because they’re so adept at handling low salinity they can deal with it and create fisheries. That’s something we haven’t even thought about in Florida,” he says. “In the Mediterranean for decades, people have been harvesting baby mullet and stocking them into the lakes of countries in North Africa -- particularly Egypt and Israel. In fact, in the Sea of Galilee one of the main fisheries is gray mullet or striped mullet.”

HIS VISION:

“It’s ecologically efficient to eat mullet, and the reason for that is that they’re not eating other fish. You’re eating a fish that is grazing on algae and detritus in the ecosystem. It’s increasing the food efficiency and the energy efficiency of what’s provided by the ecosystem to the food web to eat animals that are low in the food web.”

Ed Chiles
Ed Chiles Restaurateur/Activist —
Anna Maria Island, FL
Ed Chiles

Restaurant owner and activist Ed Chiles may be considered the most vocal mullet advocate in Southwest Florida. He’s determined to give what he considers “the ultimate sustainable seafood” a makeover and to make sure that the fish is harvested to its full potential.

Based on Anna Maria Island, Chiles trumpets the need to brand mullet and its roe based on its regional origin.

“We want to be a model for how we are the only area in the country where there are three natural estuaries on our border, where the finest mullet in the world comes from,” he says. “Why do they buy all this mullet from us? Because it’s sandy bottom west Florida mullet. It’s not river mullet. It’s not bay mullet.”

Since he’s been on the mullet bandwagon for the past decade, he’s seen attitudes change.

“People locally – crackers -- they know mullet, and they appreciate mullet. And, Europeans get it. They appreciate it,” he says. “I’m not sure why there’s a disconnect. I just know that we’re beating the drum about it, and we’re excited about it, and we’re making believers out of people and our staff gets it now.”

Chiles teamed up with Mote Marine Laboratory and Health Earth to win a $400,000 Innovation Challenge Grant from the Gulf Coast Community Foundation that aims to build a mullet processing plant in Cortez as a step towards a “billion-dollar sustainable seafood industry based on the production of mullet while emphasizing both environmental and cultural preservation.”

HIS VISION

“Wild organic sustainable seafood has tremendous value and that value is growing. That demand is growing. So let’s take the filets off; then let’s take the rest of it and let’s make organic fish meal out of it. Let’s make fish oil out of it. Let’s make fertilizer out of it, and for God’s sake let’s not underutilize it or throw it away.”

Karen Bell
Karen Bell Owner, Starfish Company —
Cortez, FL
Karen Bell

As owner of Star Fish Company & Restaurant, and co-owner of A.P. Bell Fish Company with her uncle, Karen Bell was born into one of the original fishing families in Cortez.

Her historical perspective on the mullet fishery fuels her passion to ensure that it continues to thrive.

“Mullet is one of the largest fisheries that we actually participate in. It’s probably the oldest one that’s in Cortez. Originally when fishermen came here, it was because of mullet. There was a big Cuban trade,” she says. “The mullet were salted and in fact there’s a barrel upstairs that has a Cuban label on it in the attic. There was trade going back and forth from Cuba. But, mullet today I would say is maybe 40% of what we do.”

These days, the majority of mullet goes to markets outside of Southwest Florida.

“North Carolina, Georgia, South Carolina, they’re big mullet eaters. But the majority, I think we shipped 400,000 pounds of male fish this year, went to Egypt,” she says. “And, I’d say 200,000 pounds went to North Carolina. We have a really good customer there.”

Bell is quite outspoken about how the mullet business and the community was impacted when the 1995 net ban went into effect.

“Well, our sales initially went to 50% overall for the entire company, but I think the production probably went more down to like 25%. We just made the difference up with the offshore species, and we started freezing things for other people because we have the capacity to do that,” she says. “But it was more like the spirit almost of the people here was kind of broken.”

But since then, she’s developed and seen new markets for both mullet and its coveted roe, the female egg sacs.

“I’ve gone down to Brazil with the buyer that we have for roe, and they produce millions and millions of pounds of mullet down there,” she says. “They have little barbecues, and they grow them right in their houses. And, we’ve shipped roe to Chile, to Romania, Haiti, Venezuela, all over the place where it’s appreciated.”

HER VISION

“I’m proud of what our fishermen do. And I’m proud of what our fish house does. We do a really nice job with the roe that we process and the fish that we process. My hope is that this company has been here since 1940 and I hope it’s here another hundred years or another 75 years. And, hopefully mullet will be a part of that because it’s important to not only the fish house and the fishermen, it’s important to this community.”

Mel Meo
Mel Meo Artist & Teacher —
Pine Island, FL
Mel Meo

Having raised three kids on “mullet money” brought in by her fisherman husband, Pine Island artist Mel Meo developed such a devotion to the fish that she used to cook up mullet dogs and sell them out of her mullet wagon.

“I was raised by the fishing community. And you know, we’re just a really tight, close knit community or we were back in the day,” she says. “In the early days of Pine Island, the fishing community was the hub -- it was the economy, the culture. It was looking out for one another.”

When the net ban proposal threatened to change a way of life that defined that community, Meo took action.

“In ’94 when the net ban was coming around, I went around the state with a mullet wagon just trying to win people over by tasting mullet because unless you’ve actually tasted it you don’t get it,” she said. “Then, I created the “Eat More Mullet” T-shirt and the Mullet dog. I also make a Mullet fritter. I kind of invented that.”

During her many travels and offerings of mullet, she’s seen that it’s tried and true.

“They taste it. And, they’re like wow. That’s mullet? You know it just got a bad rap,” she says.

Aside from seeing mullet as a tasty, healthy and nutritious protein, she also views the fish from an artist’s perspective.

“They’re so cute. They look like a little bird,” she says. “I just put my 25-year-old cat down. She was a big mullet lover. That’s basically all she ate. So 25 years, that’s pretty good for a cat’s life.”

While she’s phasing out the cooking part of her life and has retired her mullet wagon, she’s still a vocal advocate.

HER VISION

“I’m going to hope -- hope to find a future where people recognize mullet’s a good sustainable fish. So we can eat locally and buy locally and shop locally and help the local economy.”

Shane & Mike Dooley
Shane & Mike Dooley Commercial Fishermen & Seafood Producer -
Pine Island, FL
Mike & Shane Dooley

Mike Dooley’s dad supported eight kids and a wife by fishing mullet off Pine Island. When Mike was 12, his dad got him his first mullet boat so he could follow in the family tradition.

“I went on my own. And, caught mullet and I made money to buy my school clothes you know, buy nets,” he says. “After I graduated from school, I went in it full time. And then, I got married. And, I supported a family of four catching mullet.”

His son, Shane, is also continuing the family’s cultural heritage of commercial fishing.

“My dad built me a boat when I was young and got a couple of my buddies and wasn’t nothing better in the world. Freedom. Get out there and fish and do whatever you want to do and just fish all over,” says Shane.

As a third generation fisherman, limited by net restrictions imposed by the 1995 net ban, Shane is finding it harder to make a living and provide for his family.

“It used to be real profitable when you had the gear to catch them. We haven’t got really any good prices the last five to ten years. If we do, it’s for a week or so. It’s not long,” he says. “And the last few years the price has not come up. It’s a little bit and it’s just for a couple of weeks.”

He makes up for the lack of mullet profitability by charter fishing and stone crabbing. From both his and his dad’s perspective, it’s not a matter of lack of supply of mullet – it’s not enough demand.

“Oh there’s plenty of mullet in this area. There always has been -- from May to November we’re actually on a limit where we can only catch a certain amount per day. Like 300 to 400 pounds a day, three days a week, because they’re thick and if everybody catches mullet, it’s like everybody raising tomatoes. You pull along side the road, the price is going to go down. So it’s the same thing with mullet.”

SHANE'S VISION

“Mullet’s got a good future ahead. There’s a lot of mullet, always has been. I’ve got fourth generation fishermen at the house so, we’ll be catching them for a while. He loves it, too.”

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