Preaching gospel of mullet

Published 11:58 pm Friday, November 19, 2010

Pat Dunn fell in love with mullet when he was 14.

Then, he was the son of a rural Elmore County doctor, fishing with this dad.

Decades later, he is a retired Episcopal priest living in Gulf Shores, studying rather than fishing for mullet, and feeling desperate to save them.

” Why?” you ask.

Save the mullet and you save the world.

Mullet are bottom feeders with a reputation for ingesting waste. In fact, they eat the bacteria that eat waste. Go out to dinner with a mullet, and your selections would have familiar names: e. coli; salmonella; pseudomonas, to name a few. Their bodies convert the deadly bacteria into protein suitable for digestion by humans, especially appreciated when served with a side of cheese grits.

The mullet live in fresh water and travel to salt water to spawn. In Alabama, this happens in the fall. Only this year, they left early.

“No one’s seen a mullet in the lower part of Alabama since the spring,” Father Pat said. Five volunteer watchers attested to this in one of the many letters he’s written to find support for his cause. Father Pat’s theory is that word travelled through the “fishing line” that there was lots of food in the Gulf just after the oil spill. He thinks that for them, the message was “feast!”

For us, the message is the water is being cleaned up by a fish many dismiss as an insignificant bottom feeder. Father Pat begs to differ with the common opinion. Show him a country with a cholera epidemic – or any other water-borne illess – and he’ll show you a country that has over-fished its bottom dwellers and cheated itself of clean drinking water.

In some instances, the disappearance wasn’t caused by overfishing, but by dams that allow fish to travel to sea, but not a way to get “home” to fresh water.

Before we solve the world’s problems, let’s get back to our own. The Alabama mullet are in the Gulf, feasting and cleaning. Their breeding cycle is likely interrupted this year, as the fish have been in the salt water for months now. In the normal breeding period, with no recent desalination, they are likely to produce few offspring, the good reverend says.

Add to that the fact that gill net fishing for mullet is legal in Alabama waters. The fish stay in the Gulf longer cleaning up a man-made mess; men go out in the Gulf with nets and pull them in; soon, we have a smaller mullet population cleaning fresh water in Alabama and an even bigger man-made mess.

Father Pat says he’s having trouble getting the attention of those who could, at least for the short term, shut down gill net fishing of his beloved mullet, and preserve the species to clean the water. He’s working hard to convince Secretary of the Navy Ray Mabus that he should help, and talking to all who will listen.

Mabus, you might recall, has been tasked with development of a long-term Gulf Coast Restoration Plan. The plan will be designed by states, local communities, tribes, fishermen, businesses, conservationists and other Gulf residents. Father Pat believes he has the Secretary’s ear.

Meanwhile, the beloved priest, who sometimes fills the pulpit at St. Mary’s, will continue preaching both gospels – the Gospel, and the gospel of the mullet – to all who will listen.

Here’s hoping someone does.