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Mullets
aka: Gray Mullets
aka: Flathead Gray Mullets

Fishes commonly known as mullets, of the Family Mugilidae and Order Mugiliformes, are a group of more than seventy mostly marine species within some fifteen to twenty-five genera. The genus Mugil is cosmopolitan in distribution except in upper latitudes, and at least five species occur in North America. The latest evidence suggests that mullets are most closely related to atherinomorph fishes (silversides and topminnows). Although most mullets are strictly marine, the striped mullet (Mugil cephalus) has the physiological ability to travel between freshwater and salt water, spending much of its life in streams. It is a cosmopolitan resident of estuaries, temperate and tropical oceans, salt marshes, and shoreline areas along the Atlantic Coast of Nova Scotia south to Mexico and Brazil. On the Pacific coast, M. cephalus ranges from the San Francisco Bay Area south to Chile and the Galapagos Islands. By traveling up the Mississippi River and its tributaries from the Gulf of Mexico, it is a spring and summer (infrequent or visitor) member of the Arkansas fish fauna.

In general, all mullets are similar in morphology. They possess a short spinous dorsal fin with four spines that is separate from the soft dorsal fin and have a high pectoral fin that lacks the firm articulation between the pelvic and pectoral girdles. The striped mullet is a stout fusiform fish with a blunt snout and a broad, flat head; maximum size is 910 mm (3 ft.), and weight is 8 kg (18 lbs.). It has thirty-eight to forty-two scales in lateral series, an adipose eyelid, a dorsal fin with four spines in the anterior part and one spine and eight (six to eight) soft rays in the posterior portion, and an anal fin with three spines and seven to eight soft rays. Its scales are large and weakly ctenoid or cycloid. Coloration is olive green to blue on its dorsum with silvery sides and a white venter. There is a large blue spot at the pectoral fin base, and the lateral scales possess dark spots forming horizontal lines running the body length; small fish, however, lack these stripes.

The striped mullet usually spawns offshore in open seas, and fry and juveniles gradually move back into estuaries; although the species has been reported to spawn in rivers, there is no evidence of spawning in Arkansas waters.

Sub-adult and adult striped mullet are schooling detritivores that feed on microalgae, filamentous algae, diatoms, and detritus, with younger mullets feeding on small invertebrates, including larval mosquitos and copepods. Mullets are important as forage for piscivorous predators such as other fishes, birds, and mammals, and are used as bait by anglers fishing for marine gamefishes (bluefish, mackerel, marlin, sailfish, tarpon, and tuna). They are often mentioned as bait by tuna fishermen on the popular National Geographic television series Wicked Tuna. Striped mullet are important food fishes and are taken for their flesh (especially when smoked) and their roe, which is salted, dried, and compressed. Commercial fisheries use gill nets or long seines to collect them, and fishermen typically use a cast net to take mullet for bait.

In Arkansas, there are relatively few records of M. cephalus. Historical specimens are reported from large rivers of the state, including the lower Arkansas, lower Mississippi, upper Ouachita, Red/Sulphur, and lower White rivers. The most recent record is from the upper White River below Lock and Dam No. 1 at Batesville (Independence County). According to the Nature Conservancy, M. cephalus is ranked S1 (critically imperiled) in Arkansas.

There are a variety of parasites reported from M. cephalus from other parts of its range, including three species of copepod crustaceans, Ergasilus, and an isopod, Nerocila lanceolata, which can cause considerable tissue damage. No parasites have been reported from specimens from Arkansas.

For additional information:
Briggs, J. C. “Fishes of Worldwide (Circumtropical) Distribution.” Copeia 1960 (1960): 171–180.

Buchanan, Thomas M., Drew Wilson, L. G. Claybrook, and William G. Layher. “Fishes of the Red River in Arkansas.” Journal of the Arkansas Academy of Science 57 (2003):18‒26. Online at: http://scholarworks.uark.edu/jaas/vol57/iss1/5/ (accessed January 16, 2019).

Burgess, G. H. “Mugil cephalus Linnaeus, Striped Mullet.” In Atlas of North American Freshwater Fishes, edited by D. S. Lee, et al. Raleigh: North Carolina State Museum of Natural History, 1980.

Eschmeyer, William N., and Earl S. Herald. 1983. A Field Guide to Pacific Coast Fishes. Boston: Houghton Mifflin Company, 1983.

Helfman, Gene, Bruce B. Collette, Douglas E. Facey, and Brian W. Bowen. The Diversity of Fishes: Biology, Evolution, and Ecology. New York: John Wiley & Sons, 2009.

Hoffman, Glenn L. Parasites of North American Freshwater Fishes. 2nd ed. Berkeley: University of California Press, 2009.

McKee, David. Fishes of the Laguna Madre. College Station: Texas A&M University Press, 2008.

Mondal, A., D. Chakravortty, S. Mandal, S. B. Bhattacharyya, and A. Mitra. “Feeding Ecology and Prey Preference of Grey Mullet, Mugil cephalus (Linnaeus, 1758) in Extensive Brackish Water Farming System.” Journal of Marine Science and Research Development 6 (2015): 178.

Oren, O. H., ed. Aquaculture of Grey Mullets. Cambridge: Cambridge University Press, 1981.

Page, Larry M., and Brooks M. Burr. Peterson Field Guide to Freshwater Fishes of North America North of Mexico. 2nd ed. Boston: Houghton Mifflin Harcourt, 2011.

Robison, Henry W., and Thomas M. Buchanan. Fishes of Arkansas. Fayetteville: University of Arkansas Press, 1988.

Thomson, J. M. Synopsis of Biological Data on the Grey Mullet Mugil cephalus L. 1758. Fisheries Synopsis, Division of Fisheries and Oceanography, CSIRO, Australia, 1963.

Chris T. McAllister
Eastern Oklahoma State

Last Updated 1/16/2019

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