While watching the breakers along Atlantic Beach last fall, Joey Frost noticed a purplish tint to the water. The ocean was packed tight with a school of striped mullet.

With the “stop net” that is designed to stop migrating schools of mullet in place, the beach seine crew pulled in the striped mullet with a farm tractor. All told, they hauled in more than 45,000 pounds of mullet.

“This was our largest catch in five years,” Joey Frost says. “It was exciting to catch that many fish. It took six to seven hours to load the fish on the truck.”

For the Frost family, beach seining is a ritual that has been going on for five generations. Now, Henry Frost, his son, Joey Frost, and grandson, Matthew Frost, work on the beach seine crew each fall.

“It is our heritage,” says Henry Frost.  “It was started by my grandfather. It is so much fun scoring mullet.”

In 2002, the Frosts combined their operations with another crew on Bogue Banks, making them the only beach seine crew on the Banks. “It creates a great comradery when you have 25 men doing a job in unison,” says Frost.

Along North Carolina’s coast, there are also some small beach seine crews that fish for striped mullet off Cape Lookout.

Instead of using beach seines, most of the commercial fishing community is using gill nets to catch mullet during the fall. Both are targeting roe mullet — a delicacy in the Far East.

The meat, which is rich and tender, is used in rice noodle soup. The plump golden yellow roe is preserved and given as a gift in Taiwan during festivals and the New Year.

“In 1979, gill nets replaced beach seine as the dominant commercial fishery for all mullet,” says Rich Wong, N.C. Division of Marine Fisheries (DMF) biologist. In 2001, 94 percent of the commercial mullet landings were from gill nets.”

Besides stop and gill nets, recreational fishers use cast nests when fishing for striped mullet.

Mullet Regulations

For the crews that use stop nets, there are strict regulations. In the early 1990s, user conflicts arose between pier owners and beach seiners using stop nets, according to Wong.

As a result, the DMF began regulating stop net fishing for striped mullet. Stop nets may be used only in the Atlantic Ocean on Bogue Banks in Carteret County in certain areas between Beaufort and Bogue inlets.

Although the primary season for mullet is the fall, some people also fish commercially for nonroe mullet throughout the year.

Year-round mullet fisheries — coupled with the traditional fall gill net and beach seine fishery for roe mullet — have created a concern for the economically important species.

In 2002, the commercial fishing community landed about 2.6 million pounds of striped mullet, valued at $1.2 million, making it the sixth most valuable finfish in the state, according to DMF. From 1972 to 2001, Carteret County led the state in commercial mullet landings with an average of 43 percent, followed by Dare County with about 12 percent.

However, in 2002, the landings for Dare and Carteret counties were nearly equal. Carteret had 30 percent of the striped mullet landings, followed by Dare with 28 percent.

In Dare County, about 80 percent of the roe mullet come out of the Albemarle Sound in a four-mile strip between Manns Harbor and Manteo on the Croatan Sound, according to commercial fisher Charles Locke of Wanchese.

“There is a theory by old-timers that roe mullet have their right eye to the shore when moving,” says Locke, who uses gill nets to catch roe mullet. “So if you look at a fishing chart, mullet move south on the shoreline with their right eye.” That may be why the fish come down the west shore of Manns Harbor, he adds.

For the commercial mullet fishery, 2002 was a banner year with 2.6 million pounds harvested, which is approximately 450,000 pounds higher than the average landings from 1994 to 2001, says Wong. “Gill net and beach seine landings each accounted for 88 percent and 10 percent of the total landings. Beach seine landings were the largest in 10 years,” he adds.

To better manage the fishery, DMF began developing a mullet management plan in July 2002.

“In 1999, striped mullet was listed as a species of concern by the Division of Marine Fisheries,” says Wong. “There was a lot of fishing efforts on the stock, and the landings were high.”

Sea Grant/DMF Study

To estimate striped mullet mortality, North Carolina Sea Grant and DMF started a Marine Fisheries Fellowship Program in 2002.

“The fellowship is designed to bring new ideas from young scientists who receive experience in how a management agency works,”  explains Ronald G. Hodson, North Carolina Sea Grant director. “The mullet program fits perfectly.”

For a year, fellow Nathan Bacheler analyzed data from 15,000 mullet tagged between 1997 and 2002 by DMF.

“The tagging data suggests that the striped mullet survival rate was between 15 to 30 percent,” says Bacheler, who now is working on his doctorate at North Carolina State University. “It appears that the survival rate for adult fish is relatively low, but we are not sure if the high mortality rate is due to fishing or natural causes.”

Bacheler also found that mullet, which live in both salt and fresh waters, remain inshore most of the year, except when spawning.

In late summer, striped mullet start migrating to coastal waters and southward. Spawning takes place between October and December in inshore waters. Then the fish migrate back northward and toward shore.

The fish are bottom feeders and either scrape off material from rocks with their spade-like lower jaw or pick up the material from the ocean floor with their gill rakers and teeth. Striped mullet spit out all other matter. They also feed almost exclusively during the day, with a diet of phytoplankton and other tiny marine forms, as well as dead organic matter. In turn, top predators such as birds, fish, sharks and dolphins feed on striped mullet.

Striped mullet also are highly prolific. A large female can produce upwards of 4 million eggs.

Mullet Fishing History

David Stick’s The Outer Banks of North Carolina offers historical perspective:

…Writing from the Beaufort area in 1871, H.C. Yarrow had the following to say about mullet: “This species is the most abundant of the locality, and affords sustenance and employment to thousands of person on the coast of North Carolina.

“From the month of May, when small   sized individuals appear, fishing continues during the entire summer… and frequently until November… . The numbers taken are simply enormous, sometimes as many as 500 barrels being secured at a single haul. It was estimated  by competent observers that not less than 12,000 barrels of mullet were captured on the coast of North Carolina Friday, September 22, 1871.”

In 1880, R. Edward Earll conducted a thorough investigation and found that the  majority of the mullet fishermen were farmers from the mainland.

“When the fishing season arrived,” he said, “they leave their homes and proceed in gangs of four to thirty men to the seashore under the leadership of a ‘captain,’ who controls their movements… . On reaching the shore they    at once build rude huts or cabins, in which they eat and sleep until the close of the season.”

The men would post a lookout for mullet on the top of a large sand hill or a constructed lookout tower. When the men saw a school of fish, they would leave the post, walk down the beach and indicate the movements of the fish to other crew members with arm signals, according to Stick:

Finally, at the proper signal from the lookout, the fishermen would launch their boat through the surf, and ‘shoot’ their seine in front of the approaching school of fish.
After pulling in the schools of mullet, the men would take their catch by boat to fish houses.

Beach Seining on Bogue Banks

During the turn of the 20th century, crews fished in the narrow point on the beach along Bogue Banks, according to Henry Frost. “In a run boat, the crews would take freight to Morehead City. One of the tote paths was Salter Path – that’s how it got its name.”

During the 1930s and 1940s, there were seven beach seine crews on Bogue Banks, according to Frost. “They were all working for the federal Work Projects Administration (WPA),” that was set up under President Franklin D. Roosevelt’s administration. “It was the only way people could find work,”  he adds. “Each crew had 10 to 15 men.”

During this time, the crews often traded fish for meat. “I’d seen Daddy many times salt mullet and spot and trade for meat with a farmer,” says Frost. “We were in paradise and didn’t know it. You didn’t worry about money then. You would fish to get enough money for kerosene.”

By the time Joey Frost joined the crew in 1974, the Frosts had modernized their beach seine operation. Instead of pulling the nets in by hand, they used tractors.

Throughout the 1970s and into 1980, beach seine operations dominated the roe mullet fishery.

One of the Frosts’ biggest catch was in 1974, when the mullet were so thick that you could see the fish two miles up the beach, according to Joey Frost.

“We had a hundred yards of bunt” that is part of the fishing nets to land the fish, says Frost. “Before we got to the beach, one tractor got pulled to sea,” he adds. “It kind a scared us.

“The fish were getting tired and trying to swim offshore. We kept working against the high tide. We estimated that we got 110,000 pounds of mullet, but we probably got 130,000 pounds. When the tide fell, the fish were still thigh thick in the water.”

To celebrate the mullet fishery, Swansboro holds a Mullet Festival each year. Begun in 1954 to celebrate the completion of the White Oak River bridges, the festival has changed from a community gathering to a regional event where fried mullet is served.

“This first year they threw a fish fry for workers on the bridge project,” says Randolph Thomas, president of the Swansboro Festival’s Committee. “The late Swansboro Police Chief M.T. Manness kept the festival going for more than 20 years. Over the years, the festival attendance has grown from several hundred town folks to more than 25,000 people.”

During the 1980s, Henry Frost says he began to see a decline in the size of mullet caught. At this time, the price of fish per pound increased.

“When I first started fishing, the mullet were larger,” says Henry Frost. “In 1980s, a lot of Florida fishermen started coming up here and targeting mullet. They used tower boats and fished at night. Before this, we used to beach seine at night.”

With the ban of gill nets in Florida waters for black mullet in 1994, more commercial fishers from Florida began fishing in N.C. waters. At the same time, more North Carolina fishers turned to gill netting for striped mullet.

“It is not as expensive as haul netting and doesn’t require a big crew,” says Locke, who serves on the DMF Striped Mullet Advisory Panel. “I can go out with one man. It also is more mobile than haul netting. You go gill netting wherever the fish are. You never set a net until you see a school of fish.”

Fall Fishery

Beach seine crews begin preparing for striped mullet fishery in September.

One day, Henry Frost’s yard was piled high with fishing nets and machines. His grandson, Matthew Frost, was lubricating the tractor.

When the season starts, the crews are dependent on the winds blowing from the northeast to northwest to set the nets.

“You have to wait for a shifting wind or nor’easter to make the seas calmer,”  says Henry Frost.

When the wind begins blowing right, the crew sets the net. They go out in the water with a dory boat and use an anchor to set the net.

“We may set a net for three or four days and not catch anything,” says Joey Frost. “It takes seven to eight people to set a stop net. When you do strike, the fish are so compact it is like wall-to-wall fish. You can get 60,000 pounds in one day.”

To pull in the nets, the Frosts use a team of 10. “It takes 10 men in waist deep water to pull in a stop net,” says Joey Frost. “The whole time, the sea is breaking.”

After the fish are pulled in, they are put in baskets. Then men load the truck with fish and take the catch to market.

The money for the catch is divided evenly among the crew. “In 2002, we made only $2,500 apiece for the three-month season,” says Joey Frost. “This is not a living. But it is like a working vacation.”

The 49th Annual Mullet Festival will be held Saturday, Oct. 11, in downtown Swansboro. The parade begins at 10 a.m. More than 200 vendors will be showcasing their arts and crafts – from pottery and jewelry to birdhouses and blown glass. For more information, call 910-353-0241.

This article was published in the Autumn 2003 issue of Coastwatch.

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