Mullet belong to the Mugilidae family, a group of roughly 70 species whose members range worldwide in shallow, warm seas. A few species live in freshwater and some are reared in ponds. All are good food ﬁsh, especially in smoked form, although smaller ones may be too bony to eat. Mullet roe is considered a delicacy. Mullet are important food ﬁsh for many predator species, and anglers use them alive or dead, in chunks or strips, as bait.
IdentificationThe striped mullet (Mugil cephalus) is bluish gray or green along the back, shading to silver on the sides, and white below. Also known as the black mullet, or fatback, it has indistinct horizontal black bars, or stripes, on its sides; the ﬁns are lightly scaled at the base and unscaled above, the nose is blunt and the mouth small; and the second dorsal fin originates behind that of the anal ﬁn.
It is similar to the smaller fantail mullet (M. gyrans) and the white mullet (M. curema), both of which have black blotches at the base of their pectoral ﬁns, a characteristic that is lacking in the striped mullet.
The fantail mullet has an olive-green back with a bluish tint, shading to silvery on the sides and white below. Its anal and pelvic ﬁns are yellowish; there’s a dark blotch at the base of the pectoral ﬁn; the mouth has an inverted V-shape; and the second dorsal ﬁn originates behind the anal ﬁn.
The white mullet, also known as silver mullet, is bluish gray on the back, fading to silvery on the sides and white below. It lacks stripes; small scales extend onto its soft dorsal and anal ﬁns; there’s a dark blotch at the base of the pectoral ﬁn; and the second dorsal ﬁn originates behind the anal ﬁn.
SizeThe striped mullet may reach a length of 3 feet and weigh as much as 12 pounds, although the largest specimens have come from aquariums. Roe specimens in the wild are common to 3 pounds, but most striped mullet weigh closer to a pound. The fantail mullet is small and usually weighs less than a pound. The white mullet is similar in size to the fantail.
Life history/BehaviorMullet are schooling ﬁsh found inshore in coastal environs. Many, but not all, species have the unusual habit of leaping from the water as they race along in schools. Some have stiff bodies when they jump and fall back into the water with a loud splat, which usually draws the attention of people nearby; most newcomers to mangrove coasts think these leaping fish are a sporting species or are being pursued by gameﬁsh, although this is often not the case.
Theories abound as to why mullet jump: to escape predators, remove parasites, coordinate spawning migrations, aid respiration, and so forth. Some research has supported the respiration theory.
Research on striped mullet showed that the fish uses the upper portion of the pharynx for aerial respiration, obtaining air by jumping or holding its head above the water. The research showed that the jumping frequency of this species seemed to be inversely related to dissolved oxygen concentration. The less oxygen, the more often the ﬁsh jumped.
Adult striped mullet migrate offshore in large schools to spawn; juveniles migrate inshore at about 1 inch in size, moving far up tidal creeks. Fantail mullet spawn in nearshore or inshore waters during the spring and the summer, and juveniles occur offshore. White mullet spawn offshore, and the young migrate into estuaries and along beaches.
Food and feeding habitsThese mullet feed on algae, detritus, and other tiny marine forms; they pick up mud from the bottom and strain plant and animal material from it through their sievelike gill rakers and pharyngeal teeth. Indigestible materials are spit out. In most species, the stomach is gizzardlike for grinding food.
DistributionThe striped mullet is cosmopolitan in all warm seas worldwide and is the only member of the mullet family found off the Paciﬁc coast of the United States. The fantail mullet occurs in the western Atlantic in Bermuda, and from Florida and the northern Gulf of Mexico to Brazil.
The white mullet is found in the western Atlantic in Bermuda and from Massachusetts south to Brazil, including the Gulf of Mexico; in the eastern Atlantic from Gambia to the Congo; and in the eastern Paciﬁc from the Gulf of California, Mexico, to Iquique, Chile.