Fishermen know them as harder. Snackers know them as bokkoms. Scientists know them as Chelon richardsonii. The rest of us just call them mullet or, more specifically, southern or South African mullet. But, did you know that these small fish are engrained in South African culture?
Southern mullet are grey, elongated fish with pointy snouts and silver bodies that are darker on top than on the belly. They can be distinguished from related species by the presence of a yellow spot on their gill covers. Although we usually think of mullet as small fish, they can actually grow quite large - some reaching over 40cm.
Southern mullet inhabit the coast of Southern Africa from Walvis Bay in Namibia to Kosi Bay in KwaZulu-Natal, although South Africa's West Coast is where they are most abundant. They are also an occasional fresh or brackish water fish, often travelling far up the Berg and Olifants Rivers.
Their preferred habitats are calm, sandy-bottomed environments, such as small bays and estuaries. Huge numbers of mullet enter these sheltered environments in spring each year to spawn. These sheltered environments are also perfect places for the southern mullet to find their favourite prey - tiny photosynthetic plankton called diatoms. Because diatoms have very hard protective layers made of silica (which is basically glass), mullets do not rely on a stomach to digest them, instead, they have an organ called a crop, which helps grind up their food. This is very similar to the crop or gizzard found in many seed-eating bird species.
How did this fish get its name?
The name most South Africans will recognise the southern mullet by is "bokkoms", which also refers to the dried and salted fish which is a common snack, regularly spotted hanging from fences in West Coast fishing communities. This "fish biltong" is made by hanging the whole fish, well-salted, in the sun to dry. Occasionally, other fish species such as maasbanker are also used to make "bokkoms", but this is not traditional.
The word "bokkoms" itself comes from the Dutch "bokkem" or "bokking", which means "goat". When bokkoms are made, multiple fish are tied into a bunch and hung over a spar. When they dry, the fish curl and resemble goat horns. The name is also a reference to the sharp smell of the dried fish - goats have scent glands near their horns, so they are quite smelly too.
"Bokkom" didn't enter the Afrikaans language until the late 1800s - the fish was more commonly called "haarder" before then. Since its introduction to Afrikaans, "bokkoms" has seen some interesting uses:
- "'n droë bokkom" ("a dry mullet") - a boring, dry, dull person
- "hy kan nie bokkom braai nie" ("he can't braai mullet") - somebody who is incompetent
Southern mullet are still commonly called "harder", particularly by line fishermen who consider these mullet an excellent bait for larger predatory fish, such as giant kob. This Afrikaans name, sometimes still spelt "haarder", has its origins in the old Middle Dutch language, essentially meaning "mullet." Today, the southern mullet is the only mullet species that still carries the name harder.
One of World War 2's most famous submarines was named the USS Harder SS-257, after the South African fish. This submarine fought the Japanese, earning it the nickname Hit 'Em Again, Harder for its tenacity. This submarine, together with its crew was sunk off the coast off the Philippines, with its captain earning the Medal of Honour.
The southern mullet's scientific binomial name is Chelon richardsonii. Chelon, its genus, is Greek for "turtle" and is probably a reference to the large, easily visible scales that cover the backs of fish in this group. Its older genus names included Mugil (from the Latin for "gray mucus") and Liza (from Spanish for "mullet"). We aren't fans of these names either.
The species name richardsonii was proposed by Sir Andrew Smith, a Scottish explorer, geologist, animal lover and occasional surgeon who is widely considered to be the father of zoology in South Africa. Smith was widely respected, even receiving commendations from Charles Darwin. Smith first described the southern mullet in 1846, but forgot to mention which "Richardson" it was named in honour of, although it is widely believed to have been in honour of Scottish arctic explorer John Richardson.
A part of West Coast history
Although mullet were undoubtedly caught by South Africa's pre-colonial inhabitants, bokkoms in the form we know today is a European introduction. In 1658, a group of four Vryburghers (Dutch settlers who were private citizens, rather than members of the Dutch East India Company) received rights from the Cape Colony to settle in Saldanha Bay to try to establish a fishing community.
The Dutch East India Company had one condition - these four Vryburghers could have exclusive rights to Saldanha Bay until 1711, but they had to send 20% of everything they caught to the Cape of Good Hope to resupply ships. Being savvy businessmen, the Vryburghers would salt and dry the smallest fish, as they dried quickly and couldn't be easily filleted, and would keep the larger, more desirable fish for themselves. These small, salted fish that were shipped off to early Cape Town, where the original bokkoms.
As time went on, and fishing on the West Coast became more commonplace, bokkoms went from being an undesirable food, fit only for ship supplies, to a sought-after delicacy in other parts of the country. Fishermen began seeking out the small, delicious southern mullet for the sole purpose of making bokkoms, and it was time for the fishery to move away from Saldanha Bay to a new "bokkoms capital."
To be fair, the bokkoms fishery has not moved far. From Saldanha Bay, fishing communities moved north to the mouth of the Berg River and other West Coast estuaries. Today, Velddrif on the Breede River mouth produces as much as 95% of the world's bokkoms, giving it the informal nickname of the "Bokkom Republic". Velddrif is, or at least was, in the ideal location for harder fisheries - close to the Cerebos Salt mine, and with a perfectly sheltered estuary for both fish and bokkoms production along a road dubbed "Bokkomlaan".
Local fishermen know the good spots well, referred to as "trekke", as they are areas where their trek nets can be cast and retrieved without snagging rocks. Many of these sites are north of the Berg River mouth, and locals have their own names for the best "trekke" - "Skotteltrek", Rooirif", "Ou Gat" and "Bakenbos" to name a few.
Mullet, mackerel and small maasbanker are collected by fishermen throughout the day in "ballasmandjies", baskets that are then taken to the large fish-houses in Velddrift. The fish are then washed, but not scaled or gutted, and stacked in layers inside large concrete tanks filled with brine, interlayered with coarse salt from nearby Cerebos. When the tank is full, a wooden cover is placed on top of the tank and weighed down. This presses the gas and fluids out of the fish and prevents spoilage. After 12 to 24 hours, the fish are removed and strung together in bunches which are then hung indoors or outside to dry for four days to two weeks, depending on the season.
The southern mullet fishery is an undeniable part of South Africa, and especially the Western Cape. With up to 6 million of these fish caught a year, an abundance of local seafood is made available - bokkoms, rollmops and braaivleis. Thousands of people in the West Coast communities rely on this fishery for their income, and for many young people growing up on the coast it is expected that they will oneday follow in the footsteps of their forefathers.
Unfortunately, southern mullet are being overexploited, and although they remain abundant over large portions of our coast, huge fishing pressures are leading to a decline in numbers. Mullet rely on calm coastal waters and estuaries to protect their young - the same waters that are targeted by traditional trek netters. This practice isn't unsustainable in itself, but it's easy to see how it could lead to problems if not properly managed.
The way the southern mullet fishery is regulated in South Africa is through a "Total Allowable Effort" (TAE) limit - limiting a specific amount of fishermen to 15 designated fishery areas. Since this TAE limit was put in place, overfished mullet populations have shown recovery, but poor enforcement of fishing regulations as well as an increase in illegal fishing, have negated any positive effects that the TAE limit would have had. In fact, a 2014 DAFF report stated that illegal harder catch may already exceed the legal fishery.
This is not just bad news for the ecosystem, it's bad news for communities like Velddrif that depend on the fishery for their income. For these communities to have a future, stocks of fish need to be managed in a sustainable way. Harder is currently facing heavy fishing pressure on the West Coast, and its stock is regarded as heavily depleted - without a return to TAE limits, it's likely that bokkoms may become a food of the past.
For this reason WWF SASSI currently consider mullet an Orange-listed species - meaning you should think twice before buying it. That being said, mullet are an excellent example of a fishery that could be sustainably exploited in the future - so if you do decide to snack on bokkoms, please show your support to fishermen that are in compliance with the law.
Southern mullet were once so abundant on our coast that they were used as fertiliser. Today, their numbers are declining steadily and the communities that depend on them are at risk. There is hope for the harder - good management of the fishery and proper law-enforcement can protect these fish, allowing a chance to recover, while still allowing communities like Velddrif to thrive.
But, it all starts with you and your seafood choices - make the responsible choice and protect this piece of our heritage.