Water pollution is hurting one of North Carolina's most historic fisheries


“Charcoal mullet is a thing of great pride” among coastal North Carolina cooks, archivist Connie Mason says. Fall’s first chill triggers a delicious, smoky scent along the coast. The aroma rises from whole mullet or fillets sizzling on charcoal fires, a tradition that dates back hundreds of years. But mullet are in trouble.

Rich, nutty mullet served fried at Swansboro's annual Mullet Festival are just as tasty. Locals also add sweet potatoes to "stew fry" mullet, a cooking method that starts by rendering the fat from salt pork in pot and then adding fish, onions and water for a braise. At one time, mullet was the state's most important fishery.

Now is the time to pay attention to this fish. The N.C. Division of Marine Fisheries is proposing closing commercial fishing for striped mullet in late fall and early winter due to stock assessments that show fewer adult striped mullets. Loss of the fish's habitat is a major concern, but that does not seem to be rulemakers' minds.

"Maintenance and improvement of estuarine habitat and water quality are probably one of the most important factors in providing sustainable striped mullet stocks," the Division of Marine Fisheries reports. 

"All habitats used by striped mullet are threatened in some way. Water quality degradation through stormwater runoff, discharges, toxic chemicals, sedimentation, and turbidity all have been documented as threats to striped mullet and their habitat. Due to the importance of inlets to larval striped mullet estuarine ingress and adult egress, terminal groins may threaten striped mullet stocks. 

"Wetlands are threatened by human activities, including dredging for marinas and channels, filling for development, ditching and draining for agriculture, silviculture, and development, channelization, and shoreline stabilization. Dredging also threatens soft bottom habitat affecting striped mullet food sources and water quality," 

The Division of Marine Fisheries is accepting public comments until 5 p.m. Jan. 19, 2023, regarding potential management strategies for striped mullet.

You may provide feedback through an online form available on the online public comment page or submit a written comment through the mail to N.C. Division of Marine Fisheries, Striped Mullet Supplement A Comments, P.O. Box 769, Morehead City, N.C. 28557. Comments must be received by 5 p.m. Jan. 19, 2023.

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