There are actually 78 species of mullet world-wide
Coastal Wildlife & Native Plants
By John Marshall
Most residents of the Gulf Coast know that the namesake of this fine publication is not a bad haircut but a species of fish. There are actually 78 species of mullet world-wide, but around here it usually refers to the striped mullet (Mugil cephalus). They get their name from the spots on the upper scales that give the appearance of stripes.
Striped mullet can grow to almost four feet in length and 17 pounds, although most are much smaller, averaging just a few pounds. Females are larger and grow faster than males. They are torpedo-shaped and silvery in color on the sides and olive-brown on top. They have two widely spaced dorsal fins and large eyes.
While we think of the striped mullet as a Gulf Coast resident, they have a world-wide distribution in warm temperate and tropical areas. They live in both fresh and saltwater environments, where salinity may vary widely. Mullet exhibit a life style known as catadromous, meaning they spend their adulthood in rivers and estuaries, but migrate out to the ocean to spawn.
When they spawn, female mullet release from one to seven million eggs on the bottom of the ocean, which are fertilized by the males. The eggs are not guarded, and most are eaten by other species. For those eggs that hatch, the young mullet will move back toward the coastal waters to mature. Striped mullet reach maturity at about three years, or around 8-12 inches in length.
Striped mullet feed on plankton (microscopic algae, plants and animals) and detritus (dead stuff). Adult mullet are mostly bottom feeders (like catfish), sucking up sand and silt and consuming the dead and living material in it. Their stomachs are equipped with a gizzard-like segment that help grind up the bottom sediments.
Mullet themselves are eaten by a wide variety of other species, from speckled trout to pelicans to bottle-nosed dolphins. As such, they are an important part of the marine food web.
One way mullet avoid becoming something else’s dinner is their habit of traveling in schools for protection against predators, since large numbers make it difficult for a predator to single out a victim. One of the striped mullet’s peculiar habits, leaping out of the water, is sometimes linked to avoiding predator attacks. Scientists think leaping may also be to expose their gills to higher oxygen levels, since coastal waters tend to have low oxygen concentrations. Regardless, leaping is a distinctive mullet trait.
Humans use mullet for both food and as bait to catch other fish. Striped mullet are caught both for sport and commercial purposes. Mullet from fresh water tend to be of poorer quality taste-wise than those from saltwater. Mullet roe (eggs) are also considered a delicacy by some folks.
Because so many species of fish eat mullet, they are a popular bait fish for species such as speckled trout, red fish and even marlin. In some areas, their commercial value as bait exceeds their value as a food source.
In some parts of Lower Alabama (aka LA), striped mullet are not only eaten or used as bait, but also are valued for their “tossability” ast the annual Flora-Bama Mullet Toss. This is perhaps one of the most unique characteristics of this species.