From table to trash : the rise and fall of mullet fishing in southwest Florida

Zacks, Michelle
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[Honolulu] : [University of Hawaii at Manoa], [December 2013]
This dissertation explores the social history and cultural meanings associated with mullet (Mugil cephalus), a common inshore fish, in southwest Florida from the early nineteenth century to the late twentieth century. Centuries of harvesting, trading, and eating mullet allowed diverse populations of people to adapt to a challenging environment, generating a commonweal that connected common folk--harvesters and consumers--to the state's inshore waters. Systems of production and social relations based on the low-cost fish contributed to place-based notions of identity and collective allegiance to inshore waterways dedicated to provision rather than proceeds. As Americanization of the region progressed, conflicts widened between environmentally situated modes of life in the region and imperial abstractions of the terrain designed to render its inhabitants--human and otherwise--into resources capable of fueling capitalist growth. During the twentieth century, mullet widely came to be considered a "trash" fish, of little value as a food and expendable as a commodity. This downward shift in social status corresponded with the rising economic and political stature of Florida's seascapes as sites of leisure production. Promoted through conservation rhetoric, a successful 1994 citizens' ballot initiative banned statewide use of gill nets, the primary mullet-harvesting gear, a move that confirmed the success of instrumentalist logic that correlated social worth with capitalist potential. Analysis of the history and symbolic significance of mullet production and consumption provides insight into the power relations that shape the ecological, economic, and political structure of waterways as social domains. This dissertation argues that the classification of mullet and the people associated with it as species of American "trash" grew out of longstanding efforts by federal and state officials to integrate Florida into the cultural boundaries of the nation, which eventually placed an accessible, food-producing seascape outside the rubric of the public good. Mulletdependent people's defense of the species as a commodity, alongside their opposition to the commoditization of the seascape as a playground, offers valuable critiques of the social injustices and class bias that infuse contemporary rhetoric and practices regarding sustainability and conservation.
Ph.D. University of Hawaii at Manoa 2013.
Includes bibliographical references.
mullet, Florida, commercial fishing, environmental history, conservation politics, food politics
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