Identifying one species of fish from another is not always easy. Juvenile striped mullet and white mullet are similar in appearance, and misidentification between the two species is common. Because of misidentification, in North Carolina, any regulations for striped mullet apply to white mullet, as well.
Both striped mullet (Mugil cephalus) and white mullet (Mugil curema) are found throughout North Carolina coastal and estuarine waters, and they are frequently caught together as juveniles. Both species are popularly used as live or cut bait for flounder, red drum and many other fish. While adult striped mullet are abundant throughout the coastal and estuarine waters of the state, adult white mullet are rare.
Adult striped mullet can be easily distinguished from white mullet by the presence of horizontal stripes along the body, but a lack of stripes on striped mullet less than 6 inches can make identification of juvenile striped and white mullet difficult.
Many anglers use the presence of a gold spot on the opercle (the upper part of the gill cover) of white mullet to distinguish it from striped mullet. However, this spot often fades quickly after capture, and can be easily confused with a similar spot that can be visible on striped mullet.
A more accurate, albeit more difficult, way to distinguish the two species is by counting anal fin rays. In both species, the anal fin has three hard spines on the anterior (front) portion. However, posterior to (behind) the three spines, striped mullet have eight soft anal fin rays while white mullet have nine soft anal fin rays. These soft anal fin rays can be seen and counted by those with a sharp eye but are more easily viewed under a microscope or by using some type of magnifying lens.
Additionally, white mullet have scales extending onto the second (soft) dorsal fin and the anal fin, whereas striped mullet do not have these scales. These scales are difficult to see without the use of a microscope and can be easily damaged when handling fish.