What happened to the mullet?
Fish is scarce in Lee County

The mullet are missing.

The silvery fish are usually plentiful this time of year. And smoked mullet is a menu staple at seafood restaurants across Southwest Florida.

But some local restaurants, seafood markets and commercial fishing businesses say they are having a hard time finding mullet.

“Normally we always have smoked mullet,” explained Katie Fischer, one of the owners of Island Fish Company in Matlacha. “I do get a ton of people every day that ask, where is the smoked mullet? They (the fish) are so small that I could only charge two dollars.”

The chief suspects in the declining numbers are Mother Nature, red tide and releases of dirty water from Lake Okeechobee.

At Three Fishermen Seafood Restaurant in North Fort Myers, owner John Browning has mullet on the menu, but is not currently offering it.

“We weren’t able to get any last week,” Browning said. “I did see some this week.”

He confirmed that the mullet that are coming in are smaller in size, but said that has more to do with Mother Nature. “They are skinny this time of year,” Browning said. “You have to cut up and clean about 300 fish to get 30 pounds of fillets.”

But the size isn’t the main issue. It’s the fact that the mullet are missing.

“They are definitely not in the river where our restaurant is and they are normally there this time of year,” Browning said.

One theory is that the mullet did not come back inland after the slow spawning season in December. Populations could have been hit by red tide, but local fishermen believe the issue is the releases from Lake O.

The day's mullet catch is unloaded for sale at Jug Creek Seafood in Saint James City. (Photo: Anne Reed/The News-Press)

The day’s mullet catch is unloaded for sale at Jug Creek Seafood in Saint James City. (Photo: Anne Reed/The News-Press)

Greg Linquist, a fifth generation fisherman, was a commercial fisherman until 1995 and is pointing the finger at the released waters.

“Before there were plenty of them and now they are hardly none,” Linquist said. “The other day all day I cast-netted by the Coast Guard station and only got 10. I used to catch a hundred pounds of them in a day.”

Fishermen in Florida catch 84 percent of the nation’s grouper, pompano, stone crab, pink shrimp, spiny lobsters, Spanish mackerel and mullet, according to Fresh from Florida. In 2013, mullet was ranked second in the top Florida species harvested per pound, with close to 12.5 million pounds harvested; Lee County harvested 6.5 million pounds.

With an average price of $1 per pound, the dockside value of mullet in 2013 was $12.4 million.

Roy Kibbe, owner of Jug Creek Seafood in Saint James City, is currently paying 50 cents per pound, which means his fishermen need to bring in more than they did in 2013. But Kibbe isn’t seeing many fish come in, and no longer sees any along the docks and pylons at his Pine Island location.

“It’s hardly worth going out,” Kibbe said. He normally has 15 to 20 fishermen bringing in their day’s catch. He’s down to four. “It’s devastating to all of the little fish companies on Pine Island.”

Capt. Scott Thompson docked his boat and began unloading the day’s mullet catch from a hatch near the front of the boat. “Normally I do a thousand pounds a day,” Thompson said. “I’ve got about 400 pounds today.”

The issue, Kibbe says, is the Lake Okeechobee releases. “I’ve been doing this my whole life,” Kibbe said. “I can’t say it’s from the river and Lake O but it all points to that. My fishermen have been fishing their whole lives and they are saying the same things. The water quality is so bad that the mullet aren’t coming back or have been killed by red tide.”

Red tide is frequent this time of year, and we do often have summer releases of water from Lake O, but Kibbe pointed out we don’t have both at the same time.

Captain Scott Thompson hands baskets of mullet up for weighing at Jug Creek Seafood in Saint James City. (Photo: Anne Reed/The News-Press)

Captain Scott Thompson hands baskets of mullet up for weighing at Jug Creek Seafood in Saint James City. (Photo: Anne Reed/The News-Press)

Kibbe’s numbers for this year are off by 2.5 tons compared to the same time last year. He supplies restaurants in the area and sends shipments to out-of-state vendors. The decrease in fish supply has not just led to fishermen running smaller crews, but has Kibbe looking at ways to cut costs as well.

“It is very sad,” Kibbe said. “This is all I have ever done my whole life. You sit back and see your livelihood go down the drain. I know there are people that do care, but in big business, they don’t care. It’s sad.”

Even with the decision of the Army Corps of Engineers on Thursday to reduce the amount released from Lake Okeechobee to 4,000 cubic feet per second, the amount is still higher than what the ecosystem can handle.

For Kibbe and local fishermen, it could be too little too late.

“If they release the water in Lake O today, how long does it take to get from there to here?” Kibbe asked. “So say it takes two days and they open it back up again. We wouldn’t see a difference.”