Pearl Mullet

This is a special fish and I will tell you why.

Pearl Mullet (Chalcalburnus tarichi).

The river known as the Bendimahi slices between the mountains of ancient Armenia. It then slogs through a broad wetland before releasing into a corner of Lake Van. Along the way, the current picks up sediments and minerals and other odd hitch-hikers. Like us. Our vehicle has been riding the bank of the Bendimahi for at least 30 kilometers en route to the modern city of Van (ancient Shamiramakert). Soon we will view the lake.

Satellite image of Lake Van. The lower course of the Bendimahi, shown in the circle, drains into the shallow Ercis Gulf. Image courtesy of Google Earth.

Other seasonal travelers on the Bendimahi include the Pearl Mullet (Chalcalburnus tarichi). These little wigglers, like salmon, run the river once a year to spawn. They lay their eggs in the rushing water of the spring snowmelt before returning to the lake. Such cycles are familiar to fishermen everywhere. But what makes this place and species unique are the physical properties of the region.

The Bendimahi River slices between the mountains.

Lake Van is one of the largest soda (or alkaline) lakes in the world. Volcanic activity in deep antiquity cut off all exits from the lake and created a sealed basin. Like the more familiar Dead Sea, equilibrium for this body of water is achieved only through evaporation. Unlike the Dead Sea of Israel/Palestine however, this Dead Sea of Turkey is strongly alkaline (it has a pH of just under 10!). This concentrated chemistry of sodium bicarbonate makes for “extreme aquatic conditions” (to put it mildly!), and renders the Pearl Mullet a special species.

The springtime run of the Pearl Mullet. Image from here.

About the time of the Apostle Paul, Pliny the Elder carried the eagles of Rome and wrote about the area. He mistakenly believed that this lake (which he called Arethusa) was a part of the Tigris River system. Since he could not locate an exit for the water, he surmised that the lake was drained by a hidden underground cave.

Equally interesting is his observation regarding marine life:

“This lake produces only one kind of fish, which, however, never enter the current of the river in its passage through the lake: and in a similar manner, the fish of the Tigris will never swim out of its stream into the waters of the lake” (The Natural History, vi.31.6).

Pliny was aware of the lake’s unique situation. Fish from the freshwater Tigris are different from the fish in Lake Van. But this is because Lake Van and the Tigris River are separate systems, not because of fishish choices.

Pliny the Elder was the original Wikipedia. Image from here.

While other members of the Alburnus family are identified in the region, the Pearl Mullet is uniquely found in Lake Van. What is more, modern study suggests that the mullet is the only species of fish adapted to splash in this soda. Wild, huh?

Unfortunately, heavy fishing by the locals in streams like the Bendimahi during the spring spawn have triggered a “endangered species” tag on the fish and seasonal bans on fishing. These controls seem to be working, although in the poor economy of the region is it tough to knuckle down on an activity that accounts for up to one-third of Turkey’s fishing industry.

This part of the story, of course, is unknown at lunch time in an outdoor cafe. Uraz, our local guide, encourages us to try the mullet. However, he also makes it clear that he will not eat the fish himself. He just smiles in that funny way of his and orders chicken. Some from our group catch the nuance.

Wilkerson, possibly the most astute among us, points out in a low voice that mullet are used for bait where he comes from.

I ignore his southern-born wisdom and order a plate of the “Pearl.”

“When else are you going to get ‘em,” I reason.

The oily fish come stretched out on a plate, complete with heads, tails, fins, and buzzing flies. I eyeball one as he eyeballs me back. He winks. Or maybe I wince. I am not convinced that he has been gutted. Oil oozes from his bellypan like a ’62 LandRover.

Wilkerson has a good laugh. I look pathetically at Tanner’s chicken.

We pray and eat. I do more praying. To say that the taste (or odor) of Pearl Mullet is “strong” does not do justice to the term.

Presentation? Nope. Flavor? Well plenty of that. Pleasurable? Nope.

Brad is oblivious to the situation. “These aren’t half bad,” he smacks, extracting a bone from his teeth.

“Uh-huh,” I respond in the midst of an attempted swallow. I scan the table, desperate for more water.