The Internet is full of political rumors and complaints about commercial fishermen “wiping out the speckled trout” with their nets. Some wonder if this is all part of a movement to stop most types of commercial fishing and leave the water for the exclusive use of the sporting angler.
I’m not a commercial fisherman but there are some things that need to be said on this matter and this is bound to rub some sport fishermen the wrong way. Before you go complaining about the commercial watermen, why don’t you get in your boat, follow these guys around and actually see for yourself what the netters are taking from our coastal waters. You might be surprised at what you find.
After hearing some of the recent complaints about the strike netters wiping out the Speckled Trout, I took time to get on the water myself and see just how many these strike netters were actually taking in their nets. If what I saw is any example of what the commercial fishermen are taking from our waters, I really don’t see what there is to complain about. These commercial fishermen are after one specific kind of fish and those fish are not what I call a sport fish (Striped Mullet).
For those that don’t know what these strike netters are, they are those commercial fishermen that are roaming our waterways in boats that are rigged up with tall structures that allow the fishermen to get a better view of just what kind of fish are in the water. Sporting anglers use similar types of structures on offshore boats to get a better view of what’s in the water around them. Anglers that roam the shallow waters in their flat boats have a poling platform on the stern of their boats that are there for a similar reason. The sporting anglers’ boats are usually squeaky clean and neat. The commercial fishermen’s strike netting boats are usually dinged-up and worn from the very nature of what they do. They set nets and catch fish for a living.
Every fall for the last few years, I’d observed these strike netters cruising our brackish waters with a boat captain high in the spotter’s tower and the mate down below keeping the nets ready. I’d wondered what these guys were looking for and set out to determine for myself if they were indeed putting a huge dent in the population of one of our prime sport fish. The results of this on the spot investigation were surprising. The commercial fishermen were after Mullets. Specifically, they were after female Striped Mullets who were heavily loaded with roe.
When I’ve gone up to the strike netter’s boats and watched the men as they sorted through their catch, the fish in the boat were composed nearly entirely of Mullets. I estimated that of the thousands of Mullets that I saw in these fishermen’s boat there were maybe two Speckled Trout, a few Spots and other fish such as Pinfish, Croakers and the occasional Puppy Drum. I watched the netters throw any fish that was not a Mullet back. Since these netters targeted one specific species of fish, set their nets around schools of these fish and quickly harvested the catch, the fish that were in the net were alive and kicking and not hanging dead in the net.
The Striped Mullets migrate into our brackish waters every fall. Anyone that spends much time on our coast is familiar with these fish that have a passion for jumping out of the water in a sequence of leaps. The population of jumping Mullets seems to be in pretty good shape as I see it.
One of the biggest demands for these fish comes from the sport fishing community who likes fresh cut mullet as bait for the more desirable Red Drum or Speckled Trout. There’s an old saying that where you find lots of Mullets you’ll find the redfish closely behind. Obviously the Mullets are an important part of the food chain in the coastal waters.
The fall run of Mullets contains lots of female fish that are heavy with roe and there’s a good demand for the fresh eggs. Somebody in the world really likes this stuff and is willing to pay a premium price for it.
At first I was told that the Japanese were the ones so desirous of the Mullet roe but upon Googling Mullet roe on the Internet, I’ve found that the demand for this kind of fish eggs is pretty cosmopolitan in nature with Taiwan, Japan and Italy being the countries with the best demand for “muggine di bottarga” being greatest. Salted air dried and grated onto various dishes as a condiment or simply eaten dried similar to the venison jerky we like, these folks obviously like dried Mullet roe because they’ll pay as much as $95 per pound for it. Maybe we’d pay that much for some types of Beluga caviar but for Mullet roe—no way.
I grew up in eastern North Carolina and the yellow roe (yellow as in fish eggs or white roe as milt from the male fish) was a very popular dish. Mostly, we ate Hickory or White Shad roe and in later years Menhaden roe from the Morehead area. When we ate Mullet it was usually fresh or corned (salted and stored in wooden barrels during the winter). The fresh Mullet was great barbecued on a grill and the salt Mullet was soaked out and fried. Even though the Mullet roe was popular in some areas of North Carolina, to my knowledge it was not in the Aurora area.
It never seems like a good idea to remove any kind of animal from an ecosystem when it is an important link in the food chain. When that animal is in the act of reproducing, it is possible that harvesting the Striped Mullet at this critical time of the year could have a bad effect on the environment. Frankly it looks to me like it has not hurt the Mullet population here in North Carolina. If future studies by the N.C. Division of Marine Fisheries should show that the Mullet population is declining because of strike netting, then that practice should be stopped. Meanwhile, I wonder if we sport fishermen aren’t being a little paranoid about net fishermen and their effect on the environment.