All About Florida Keys Fishing & Key West Fishing

    Sea catfishes, Ariidae
    Hardhead catfish, Ariopsis felis
    Gafftopsail catfish, Bagre marinus
    Two species of sea catfishes occur in Florida waters: the hardhead catfish, Ariopsis felis,
    and the gafftopsail catfish, Bagre marinus. Both species inhabit estuarine and nearshore waters
    throughout Florida. According to reports, the gafftopsail catfish also occurs in freshwater.
    Although not favored by anglers as sport or food fishes, anglers easily catch sea catfishes
    because the fish are broadly distributed and opportunistic feeders. Adult hardhead and
    gafftopsail catfish will move out of estuarine waters to nearshore coastal waters to avoid water
    temperatures below 25 ºC. A length of about 4.7" standard length (SL) is apparently reached by
    age 1. Past studies have reported that hardhead catfish reach a maximum age of 5–8 years
    (Doermann et al. 1977), and females mature to spawn at about 2 years of age and 4.7”–7.9" SL.
    The smallest mature gafftopsail catfish reported in the literature was 10.4" SL. However,
    unvalidated evidence indicates that maximum age for both species may be as old as 25 years and
    maturity is not reached by either species until age 5 (Table 1, FWC-FWRI, unpublished data).
    Hardhead catfish spawn from May to August in back bays; gafftopsail catfish spawn during
    May–August over inshore mudflats. Males of both species exhibit oral gestation behavior,
    carrying the fertilized eggs, larvae, and small juveniles in their mouths (Muncy and Wingo
    The similar diets of gafftopsail and hardhead catfish include algae, seagrasses,
    coelenterates, holothuroidians, gastropods, polychaetes, crustaceans, and fishes (Merriman

    During 2005, landings of sea catfishes in Florida totaled 486,868 pounds. The
    recreational fishery made 98% of the total landings. Landings were greater on the gulf coast,
    where about 59% of the statewide landings were made in 2005. In 2005, on the Atlantic coast,
    Indian River County had the highest commercial landings for sea catfishes (Fig. 1). Angler
    landings were greatest along the entire gulf coast except in Monroe County, and along coastal
    counties of Indian River through Nassau on the Atlantic coast (Fig. 2). The 2005 total landings
    were 4% lower than the average landings in the previous five years (2000–2004) and were 37%
    lower than the 1982–2005 historical average landings (Fig. 3). Estimated landings for anglers
    represents only a small portion of their total catch because most sea catfish are released, e.g.,
    82%–96% of the total catch was released during 1995 (Armstrong et al. 1996c). Overall, anglers
    appear to land and keep fewer hardhead catfish than gafftopsail catfish. Armstrong et al. (1996c)
    noted that gafftopsail catfish probably make up the majority of the commercial sea catfish
    landings on the Atlantic coast.
    On the Atlantic coast, standardized commercial catch rates for sea catfishes declined
    since 1998 (Fig. 4). On the gulf coast, the commercial catch rates showed erratic ups and downs
    since 1991 (Fig. 5).Standardized recreational total-catch rates for hardhead catfish (Figs. 6, 7)
    and gafftopsail catfish (Figs. 8, 9) appear to have been stable on both coasts of Florida since
    Indices of abundance for young-of-the-year (YOY) hardhead catfish indicate strong
    recruitment to inshore waters in 2001, 2003 and 2005 on the Atlantic coast and little trend in
    recruitment on the gulf coast (Figs. 10, 11). Recruitment of YOY gafftopsail catfish was not
    adequately sampled to determine any trend on the Atlantic coast and was strong in 1997, 1999,
    2002, 2003 and 2004 on the gulf coast (Figs. 12, 13). Abundances of post-YOY hardhead
    catfish appear to have been increasing before reaching relatively stable levels beginning in 2002
    on both coasts (figs. 14, 15). Post-YOY gafftopsail catfish were most abundant in 1998 on the
    Atlantic coast and in 2000 on the gulf coast (Figs. 16, 17).
    Indices of gross external abnormalities in hardhead catfish varied without trend on the
    Atlantic coast until 2004, but were highest there in 2005, and on the gulf coast in 2000 and 2001
    (Figs. 18, 19). For gafftopsail catfish, gross external abnormalities were not reported on the
    Atlantic coast, but were most prevalent in 2000 on the gulf coast (Fig. 20). Red/bloody areas and
    ulcers/lesions were the most common abnormality observed in hardhead catfish on the Atlantic
    coast, while red/bloody areas were the most common abnormality for hardhead catfish and
    gafftopsail catfish on the gulf coast (Figs. 21, 22, 23). These symptoms appear to be indicative of
    viral infection (M. Bakenhaster, FWRI Aquatic Health, personal communication).

    Stocks of hardhead catfish and gafftopsail catfish in Florida appeared to be in good
    condition in 1995 (Armstrong et al. 1996c). The available data showed that populations for both
    species consisted of many abundant age groups; such data are indicative of low mortality.
Download complete report
(including figures)
Status and Trends 2007 Report
Florida’s Inshore and Nearshore Species
by Florida Fish and Wildlife Research Institute
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