With little time left in roe mullet season, anglers cashed in when the meat, or mullet biomass, ran offshore to spawn last week.
During that time, hundreds of boats brought in netful after netful of roe-filled mullet. Red roe was valued around $1 a pound, and with so many fish being caught, fish houses stopped accepting white roe mullet to leave space for the more valuable reds.
When this occurs, anglers are left with the responsibility of either releasing the white roe fish alive or caring for them after the fact.
"Some fishermen discard white roe mullet dead," says Harry Blenker of Blenker Boatworks, who buys mullet during roe season. "It seems to be a lot of out-of-state guys. They make room by discarding dead white roe mullet and only bring in red roe, not caring as much about the resource."
The controversy hit the local media circuits this past week as dead mullet began to wash up on the beach, and misinformation was provided. The fish are brought in whole condition, not removed of roe offshore and discarded.
During 2011-2012, a similar situation occurred, and the Florida Fish and Wildlife Conservation Commission issued a statement for fish houses to provide to the fishermen, which reads as follows: "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 and none of those fish may be placed or deposited any place out of the water. Additionally, all striped and silver mullet harvested for commercial purposes within or without the waters of the state shall be landed in a whole condition. The possession, while in or on state waters, of a mullet harvested for commercial purposes that has been beheaded, sliced, divided, filleted, ground, skinned, scaled or deboned is prohibited."
Fish houses, such as Blenker, do the work of distributing the fish. "We buy whole mullet, red and white roe. They are separated, and the red roe is removed from the fish, frozen into bags, and shipped worldwide. Ours goes to Italy, where it becomes Sardinian Bottarga. The rest of the fish, along with the white roe fish we purchase, is distributed to Canada, Bermuda, and elsewhere as food grade fish for consumption," Blenker says.
"We only buy fresh fish from local fishermen who ice their fish properly and take care of them. Local guys know this is their livelihood and this is their resource. Other guys come in and just do it for the paycheck, not caring about the future of the fishery."
Knowing that mullet are a resource, Blenker does what he can to let his sellers know when he won't be buying white roe.
"I tell my fishermen well in advance that we can no longer accept male fish. I want them to cull them alive, and if they are dead take them home and smoke them, eat them or whatever. White roe are a resource we need to protect."