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What is a Red Mullet?

By Heather Phillips
Updated Jun 04, 2024
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Red mullet is a species of goatfish that lives in the Mediterranean Sea, the North Atlantic Ocean, and the Black Sea, among other habitats. There are two species of fish that are commonly referred to as red mullets, the mullus barbatus and the mullus surmuletus. These are relatively small bottom-feeders, distinguished by the red coloring typically found along the upper portion of the head, backbone, and fins.

The distinctions between the mullus barbatus and the mullus surmuletus can been seen in coloring, size, and habitat. Mullus surmuletus is usually larger. It is also known as a striped red mullet, or surmullet because of the stripes on its two dorsal fins, which are not found on mullus barbatus. The two types differ in habitat since the mullus barbatus generally prefers feeding in the muddy bottoms of deeper waters. The mullus surmuletus typically prefers eating in shallow waters with sandy or rocky bottoms.

Both species have two whisker-like barbels present on the outside of the lower jaw. They use these sensitive appendages to find food on the bottoms where they feed. A red mullet’s diet generally consists of crustaceans, mollusks, worms, and small fish.

These fish both have body shapes typical of goatfish. They are elongated and deep, with widely-spaced dorsal fins and a forked tail fin. They also have the ability to change their color, which seems to be dependent upon the time of day, stress, and health of the fish. In addition to their red coloring, these fish also have yellow stripes running lengthwise down the sides of their bodies.

The size of mullus surmuletus generally ranges from approximately 7.9 in (20 cm) to 15.75 in (40 cm). They can weigh up to four lbs (1.81 kg). Mullus barbatus typically grow to between 3.94 in (10 cm) and 11.8 in (30 cm), and can weigh up to one lb (0.5 kg).

Since at least the 1st Century AD, red mullet has been of culinary importance. The ancient Romans had a particular fondness for it, with many wealthy Romans keeping the fish in ponds, and even hand-feeding them. It is said that those who kept them liked to observe the color changes in the fish.

Around 100 AD, affluent Romans developed a passion for eating larger red mullet, likely the surmullet. They would often pay, for the time, exorbitant amounts of money for these larger specimens. An ordinary citizen could not have afforded to eat red mullet.

Red mullet is still a culinary favorite with many people who like to eat fish. The best season for it is usually from October through May. Demand for the fish in the Mediterranean region remains strong.

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