ANNA MARIA ISLAND — It usually happens Christmas week. Near the fishing village of Cortez, the gray striped mullet move off the flats, balling up by the thousands for their annual spawning, the water rolling in black waves of fish frenzy.
The frenzy echoed by the commercial fishermen, nearly 150 boats surround the school and throw cast nets in what restaurateur-activist Ed Chiles calls "a killing field."
Chiles and a group of like-minded scientists and entrepreneurs don't want to do away with the annual harvest of this native species off their coast.
They want to do it smarter. And they're in the running to win $400,000 to make that happen.
"We need to solve the problem of how to put healthy protein on the plate. We're overfishing the ocean by 40 percent," Chiles says.
He thinks part of the answer is giving the unsexy mullet — what he calls "the ultimate sustainable seafood" — a makeover.
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Pound for pound, mullet is Florida's biggest fin fish haul, with 9.5 million pounds landed in 2012 (versus a little more than 8 million pounds of grouper and 6 million pounds of snapper). It's a species that has a bum rap, and that's not just because of the unfortunate hairdo of the same name.
For years, much of the gray mullet roe harvest has been shipped around the world; it is salt-cured and sun-dried in Taiwan to make karasumi and in Sardinia to make bottarga. The fillets are largely eaten in Asia; in the United States, they are often relegated to baitfish or smoked and sold at the side of the road.
Mullet roe is Cortez's No. 1 export, 1 million pounds of the sacks graded by size and sold as a commodity for an average of $10 per pound. When it comes back from Sardinia as a shavable delicacy? It's $200 per pound.
A good day during the compact mullet spawning run is 10,000 pounds of fish for a single boat. The rub is this: Females with their roe sack command a price of $1.35 per pound; males get 17 cents.
It's pragmatic. Anglers throw the males back to make room on boats for the more lucrative females. And every January, thousands of pounds of dead male mullet wash up on the shores, a smelly nuisance that makes tourists think "red tide" and local business owners just see red.
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A few years back, Chiles and Anna Maria native Seth Cripe started Anna Maria Fish Co. to bring Florida-made bottarga to market.
Last year, Sarasota-based Healthy Earth bought the company, as well as Mote Marine Laboratory's innovative recirculating aquaculture sturgeon and caviar operation. Its aim has been to acquire farms that produce nutritious foods sustainably.
On July 29, Healthy Earth was named one of five finalists in an incentive-grant Innovation Challenge launched by the Gulf Coast Community Foundation, its winning proposal distilled in a 140-character "tweet":
Build a $billion sustainable seafood industry based on the production of mullet while emphasizing both environmental and cultural preservation.
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Healthy Earth's team competed against 25 others and nabbed an initial $25,000 grant to develop a prototype. If it wins, in November it will be awarded an additional $375,000 in grant funding to bring its mullet program to market.
According to Chris Cogan, the project team leader and CEO of Healthy Earth, the first phase of the project is to get sustainability certification for the gulf mullet fishery. The second is to build a state-of-the-art multipurpose processing facility that will provide year-round jobs to the local economy.
If it can stop the waste of all the male mullet by incentivizing local fishermen to participate by making them a part of the business, Cogan says, there are several sustainable foods and related products the mullet facility can produce: omega-3 fish oils and probiotics, organic fish and livestock feeds, chemical-free pesticides and fertilizers.
Not to mention mullet meat for human consumption. Akin to chefs' mounting enthusiasm for "snout to tail" cooking, restaurateurs like Chiles are increasingly interested in finding ways to use the whole fish and ways to make more humble species delicious.
Chiles has experimented with serving meaty swordfish collars (a part often thrown away) at his Anna Maria Island Sandbar Restaurant; he serves a rich appetizer of fried softshell crab bellies (again, a part often tossed) topped with Mote Marine sturgeon caviar; and he serves lots and lots of mullet.
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For now, Chiles' beloved local mullet commands only $9.99 on his Sandbar menu. Grouper with a stuffing of shrimp, crab and pepper jack gets $26.99. Mullet can be an assertively flavored fish that doesn't appeal to everyone and, at a restaurant that serves upward of 2,000 diners a day, you have to please the masses. But Chiles fantasizes about opening a tiny restaurant where he can serve sustainable species and "trash fish" to the growing number of like-minded diners.
It's important that those numbers grow swiftly: The United States imports 90 percent of all the seafood we eat. With the second-longest coastline, Florida is merely 12th in seafood production and the second-largest consumer of imported seafood.
Cogan says that Cortez is "ground zero for producing the best mullet in the world" and that the Healthy Earth mullet program will proceed whether or not it wins the challenge.
It's a project, Chiles says, that will bring new life to a historic fishing village.
"If this is instituted, Cortez residents' best days will be ahead of them."
Contact Laura Reiley at firstname.lastname@example.org or (727) 892-2293. Follow @lreiley.