2009-02-26 / Outdoors

It's fun to think that mullet jump just because they can

BY LEE BELANGER Special to Florida Weekly

COURTESY PHOTO The top side of a mullet has what appear to be horizontal lines. COURTESY PHOTO The top side of a mullet has what appear to be horizontal lines. "What are those fish I saw jumping?" That's a common query from visitors to Collier-Seminole State Park. Although we do see tarpon jump from time to time, it's usually a school of mullet that catches the eye.

Mullet are coastal fish that frequent estuaries and sometimes freshwater. We seem them in our boat basin and all through the Blackwater River. Several species of mullet live in the Gulf of Mexico, but most often we see striped mullet (also called black mullet). These mullet live from Nova Scotia to Brazil and also in the Mediterranean and the Black Sea. Adults grow form 1-2 feet long and can weight up to about 10 pounds. Their gray to silver scales shimmer with a hint of blue. The top half of the body is streaked by dark, horizontal lines. A closer look reveals the dark color is actually dots on each scale.

So why do they jump?

My first response to visitors asking that question is offered kiddingly: "Because they can." Then I take a stab at the real answer, one that continues to elude biologists.

Mullet jump when a boat comes near them. They also jump when predators such as bottlenose dolphins, large fish and birds pursue them for dinner. But mullet sometimes jump when no preda- tor or boat is near.

Since mullet are bottom feeders, it could be that they jump in order to clear their gills of mud. Jumping also might give them more oxygen after feeding in deep water where oxygen levels are low. Perhaps they jump to let other mullet know they're in the neighborhood.

Another theory suggests that mullet jump to rid their bodies of surface parasites. It's certainly possible that the force of splashing back into water could wash parasites away.

Biologists continue to search for reasons why mullet jump. Some think the fish release flatulence as they reenter the water from a jump. Gas might build up in the digestive tract as they digest algae and zooplankton, their main diet.

While all of these things could be reasons why mullet jump, I still prefer to think they do it just for the fun of it.

In Florida, mullet spawn in October through January, leaving fresh water and estuaries for deeper water offshore. Sharks eat many of them during this seasonal migration. Each surviving female lays up to 1 million eggs, each of which contains a drop of oil that keeps them afloat.

When mullet larvae hatch, they have no mouth or fins. In a few days, they grow into juveniles. Able to eat and swim, they migrate back to estuaries and coastal waters where they remain for a year, growing into adults while hidden in sea grasses and mangrove roots. Predators quickly eat any mullet that stray into open water.

If you spend much time near the gulf, you will see signs and literature encouraging you to protect mangroves and sea grass. These plants are vital to the survival of recreational and commercial fishing.

Next week I'll write about fishing for mullet. It is quite a challenge to catch these vegetarians.

For more information about fishing, the Florida Fishing Guide (a publication available at our park and other fishing spots) spells out saltwater license and other fishing regulations. In the meantime, get outdoors; hike, canoe and enjoy our splendid winter weather.

Lee Belanger is a volunteer trail and

canoe guide at Collier-Seminole State Park.

To contact her, e-mail Lungwort@aol.com.

Paddle by daylight or by moonlight

Paddle through the mangrove wilderness of Collier-Seminole State Park with a park ranger.

>>Daytime trips along the Blackwater River set out at 9:30 a.m. Friday, Saturday, Monday and Wednesday, Feb. 27-28 and March 2 and 4. The three-hour trips are fun for ages 6 and older; $25 per person in your canoe or a park canoe.

>>Moonlight paddles begin at 7:30 p.m. Tuesday and Wednesday, March 10-11. Join a park naturalist and discover the dynamic changes and reflections nighttime brings along the river. The 2½-hour trip is great for ages 12 and older; $30 per person.

Reservations are required for canoe trips. Special group, family or club trips can also be arranged. Call Lee Belanger at 394-3397.

The entrance to Collier-Seminole State Park is at 20200 U.S. 41 in East Naples.

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