Golden mullet is a migratory fish of the Mugilidae family, a common species of fish distributed worldwide that enjoys no special attention from scientists or environmentalists but is an important part of local traditions in the North Adriatic. Once a year in winter, mullets appear in large shoals in the Mirna Estuary (Croatia) and the Bay of Piran (Slovenia) and are a valuable winter catch.
As fishers explain, mullets are smart. For them, a small hole in the net is enough for the entire shoal to escape. They form a long line and wait patiently without jostling, escaping one by one through the hole.
Mullets feed mostly on small benthic organisms and detritus and are, in popular discourse, sometimes described as ‘dirty’ fish due to their eating habits. However, during the winter time they fast, and their meat becomes clean. After mullets are caught, they are sold on the pier directly to local inhabitants or at the local fish markets and supermarkets across Slovenia. They are considered relatively cheap fish, and they do not sell well abroad. For example, fishermen note that mullets do not sell in Italy, as the people there do not appreciate them.
Statistically, the golden mullet is not among the top three fish species caught by Slovenian fishermen, but it plays an important symbolic role in the region; black-and-white photos of ‘traditional’ ways of catching mullets from the beginning of the 20th century are an enduring part of Piran’s image. These old photos feature mostly Italian-speaking former inhabitants of Piran who were exiled from the present-day Slovenian coast after World War II due to the change of political regimes. Despite this difficult past, mullet fishing depicted in these photos remains the symbol of a past communal way of life and cooperation. After all, as they are caught jointly by numerous fishermen. Perhaps for this reason, the mullet’s image was selected for the Slovene animal postage stamp in 2013. Mullets also often find their way into Slovene newspapers, reporting on the annual winter catch or the disputed maritime border between Slovenia and Croatia.
Despite traversing large distances in the sea, after arriving in the Bay of Piran, mullets become primarily characterised as ‘local’ – as part of the distinctive way of life slowly evaporating due to modernity, as ancient evidence of ‘our sea’ in the sea border dispute and as a temporal proof of things staying the same winter after winter, despite the decline of the fishing sector and all other transformations taking place on the coast.
Ethnographic documentation: Nataša Rogelja Caf, Martina Bofulin and Alenka Janko Spreizer