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The Hardhead Catfish, Arius felis. Illustration by Diana Rome Peebles 1998. Courtesy of Florida Fish and Wildlife Conservation Commission, Division of Marine Fisheries.

Species Name: Ariopsis felis Linnaeus, 1766
Common Name: Hardhead Catfish
Sea Catfish
Synonymy: Arius felis Linnaeus, 1766

    Kingdom Phylum/Division Class: Order: Family: Genus:
    Animalia Chordata Actinopterygii Siluriformes Ariidae Arius

    Other Taxonomic Groupings

    Superclass: Osteichthyes
    Subclass: Neopterygii
    Infraclass: Teleostei
    Superorder: Acanthopterygii

    Species Description

    Both marine (Ariidae) and freshwater catfishes (Ictaluridae) are notable for their unscaled skin, forked caudal fins, adipose fins set anterior to the caudal peduncle, and the presence of large, serrated spines positioned anteriorly to the dorsal fin and the pectoral fins. Marine catfishes are separated from Ictalurids based on the absence of barbels on the nostrils, and by body color, which is typically steel blue dorsally, fading to silver laterally, and white ventrally.

    Ariopsis felis, the sea catfish, is an elongate marine catfish that reaches 49.5 cm in length (Perret et al. 1971). The head is depressed in profile, with the mouth inferior. There are 3 pairs of barbels present. The maxillary barbels are nearly as long as the head, while the other 2 pairs are much shorter and set under the chin. The dorsal fin, anal fin and pectoral fins each bear a single strong spine. The dorsal fin has 7 soft rays, the anal fin has 19-20 rays and the pectoral fin has 6-10 rays. A pair of ventral fins is set far posterior to the origin of the dorsal fin. The adipose fin is black in color. The caudal fin and anal fins are generally tipped with black, while the remainder of the fins are dusky in color. Females have larger pelvic fins than males (Lee 1937; Merriman 1940; Muncy and Wingo 1983).


    Regional Occurrence

    Bagre marinus ranges from Cape Cod, Massachusetts south through coastal Florida and the Gulf of Mexico to the Yucatan Peninsula. They are much more common south of the Chesapeake Bay region (Muncy and Wingo 1983).

    IRL Distribution

    Sea catfishes are common throughout the IRL and can be seasonally abundant.


    Age, Size, Lifespan

    The maximum reported size of a sea catfish was 70.0 cm (27.6 inches) total length (TL), with a maximum reported weight of 5.5 kg (12.2 pounds) (IGFA 2001). The lifespan may be as long as 5 - 8 years (Benson 1982; Doermann et al. 1977).

    Age 0 sea catfishes in southwestern Florida were measured at 118 - 133 mm (4.6 - 5.2 inches) TL, while Age 1 sea catfishes grew to 193 mm (7.6 inches) TL (Gunter and Hall 1963).


    Ariopsis felis reaches sexual maturity before the age of 2 (Benson 1982). Female size at maturity has been reported within the range of 12.6 - 26.5 cm (4.9 - 10.4 inches) (Merriman 1940; Benson 1962). In males, maturity is thought to occur at a somewhat larger size of approximately 25 cm (9.8 inches) in length (Merriman 1040).

    Females develop flap-like fatty tissue on their pelvic fins at maturity, and thus have larger pelvic fins than males of the species (Lee 1937; Merriman 1940). It has been proposed that the highly modified pelvic fins may be the site of fertilization and may play a role in transferring fertilized eggs to the mouth of the male for incubation (Gunter 1947). However, it is also possible that males pick up eggs from shallow depression in sand, as eggs, while adhesive, tend to be demersal.

    Ward (1957) examined eggs of females captured from Mississippi Sound. He noted eggs generally measured 6-8 mm in diameter in April, 9-14 mm in May, and 14-16 mm in June and July. Eggs were enriched with yolk by early June. Motile sperm occur in male Ariopsis felis from March - July in Mississippi Sound. Spawning occurs from May through August in shallow bays and estuarine waters, sometimes in less than 1 m (3.3 feet) of water (Muncy and Wingo 1983).


    Oval or elliptical eggs are large at fertilization, measuring 12-19 mm in diameter (Merriman 1940), are greenish in color, and develop in the mouth of the male parent. Parental care by males offsets low fecundity of females, which have only 20 - 65 eggs per spawning event. Numerous small, non-functioning eggs are often found attached to large, viable eggs. Gunter (1947) speculated that these smaller eggs might be utilized as a food source for males brooding offspring.

    Eggs of Ariopsis felis are brooded in the mouth of males and hatch after approximately 30 days when held under laboratory conditions at a temperature of 30°C (86 °F) (Jones et al 1971). Larvae measure 29 - 45 mm (1.1 - 1.8 inches) TL at hatching and are retained in the mouths of male parents until their yolk sacs are absorbed approximately 2-4 weeks after hatching. Adult characteristics are present at absorption of the yolk sac but juveniles tend to remain with the parent, returning to its mouth for protection, for a short time thereafter.

    Juveniles measure 68-88 mm (2.7 - 3.5 inches) TL.



    Adult sea catfishes prefer water temperatures between 25 - 36°C (77 - 96.8 °F)(Jones et al 1978), and actively avoid waters where temperatures exceed 37°C (99 °F). They also tend to avoid water temperatures below 6°C (43 °F) in the winter months by migrating offshore where water temperatures are more stable, returning to inshore areas in the spring. However, Tabb and Manning (1961) reported that catfishes in southern Florida waters remain inshore year-round.


    Spawning salinity 13-40 parts per thousand (ppt) (Jones et al. 1978; Muncy and Wingo 1983). Harvey (1972) reported that yolk sac larvae of the sea catfish were collected at salinities ranging from 8.33 - 12.78 ppt, but not higher. Juveniles in the same study were collected at salinities of 16.6 - 28.32 ppt, with older juveniles able to osmoregulate in higher salinities.

    Other Physical Tolerances

    Wang and Nicol (1977) reported on the effects of fuel oil on sea catfishes and noted that the lethal concentration where 50% of the laboratory population died was 0.14 ml/L (0.0012 ounces per gallon). However, the presence of 0.02 ml of oil per liter (0.00018 ounces per gallon) of water did not appear to affect feeding behavior in sea catfishes. Raising the level to 0.08 ml fuel oil per liter (0.00071 ounces per gallon) of water caused catfishes to regurgitate food and to lose the protective mucus layer of the stomach.


    Trophic Mode

    Sea catfishes are opportunistic feeders that utilize mud and sand flats as feeding grounds. Algae, seagrasses, cnidarians, sea cucumbers, gastropods, polychaetes, shrimps, crabs, and smaller fishes comprise the bulk of the diet (Merriman 1940). Several authors have noted that blue crabs are a principal food source in the sea catfish diet (Gunter 1945; Gallaway and Strawn 1974).

    Males carrying eggs or juveniles do not feed (Muncy and Wingo 1983). However, juveniles under the protection of a male parent, feed on planktonic crustaceans that are within range of, or enter, the parent's mouth (Merriman 1940).


    Reported predators of sea catfishes are the longnose gar, bull shark, and large finfishes. Sea catfishes are also commonly caught as bait for large gamefishes such as the cobia (Muncy and Wingo 1983).


    Benson (1982) reported that juvenile sea catfishes tend to remain in lower salinity estuaries and bays in Mississippi Sound. However, Reid (1957), working in Texas, and Pristas and Trent (1978), working in Florida, each reported that juvenile sea catfishes were most commonly collected in offshore trawl sampling, rarely collected while beach seining.

    Depth preferences in gafftopsail catfishes are apparently related to bottom type and to water temperature, with higher abundances of gafftopsail catfishes noted when ample organic debris is present in substrate, and water temperatures are above 15°C (Muncy and Wingo 1983).

    Activity Time

    Gunter (1938) and Jones et al. (1978) reported that sea catfishes sometimes school nocturnally.


    Special Status

    Limited commercial and recreational importance.

    Fisheries Importance

    Commercial Fishery
    Though edible, the sea catfish is not generally consumed as a food fish, with many commercial and sport fishers regarding it as a nuisance species due to its dorsal and pectoral spines, which are large, serrated, and capable of causing painful wounds (Muncy and Wingo 1983). However, sea catfishes do have limited commercial importance and are harvested for industrial purposes in commercial bottom trawling operations (Muncy and Wingo 1983) and are taken recreationally for both bait and as food.

    From 1987 - 2001, 1.04 million pounds of marine catfishes (including both the sea catfish, Ariopsis felis, and Bagre marinus, the gafftopsail catfish) were harvested commercially in the 5-county area (Volusia, Brevard, Indian River, St. Lucie, Martin) encompassing the Indian River Lagoon. The harvest was valued at $777,497, which ranks marine catfishes thirty-fifth in dollar value to IRL counties, and forty-second in pounds harvested.

    Figure 1 below shows the dollar value of the commercial fishery of marine catfishes to IRL counties by year. As shown, the commercial catch ranged from a low of $9,167 in 1989 to a high of over $344,931 in 1992. Martin County accounted for the largest percentage of the marine catfish harvest with 32.8% in total (Figure 2), followed by St. Lucie County, which accounts for 21.5% of the total. Brevard, Volusia, and Indian River Counties accounted for 19.1%, 16.9% and 9.7% of the total respectively. Interestingly, the six-year period between 1990 - 1995 accounts for 87% of the total harvest of catfishes in the vicinity of the IRL. Of note is that 44% of the cumulative harvest for the entire period between 1987 - 2001 occurs in 1992, a clearly anomalous year. Martin County again accounts for the bulk of the harvest in 1992, however, the other 4 IRL Counties also saw greatly increased catches of catfishes in this year.

    Figure 1. Annual dollar value of the commercial catch of marine catfishes (sea catfish and gafftopsail catfish) to the 5-county area of the Indian River Lagoon.

    Figure 2. Total marine catfish (sea catfish and gafftopsail catfish) dollar value and percentage by county for the years 1987 - 2001.

    Table 1. Total dollar value of IRL marine catfishes, Ariopsis felis and Bagre marinus, between 1987 - 2001.

    Table 2. By-county annual and cumulative percentages of the marine catfish (sea catfish and gafftopsail catfish) harvest for the years 1987-2001.

    Table 3. By-county cumulative dollar value and percentage of total for the marine catfish (sea catfish and gafftopsail catfish) harvest from 1987 - 2001.

    Recreational Fishery
    Though the sea catfish is considered a nuisance species by many anglers, it is among the thirty most harvested species within the IRL region based on Marine Recreational Fisheries Statistics Survey information compiled by the National Marine Fisheries Service. From 1997 - 2001 IRL anglers captured 123,022 sea catfishes either for use as bait, or for food.

    Another 238,000 sea catfishes were harvested from other inshore waters, nearshore waters and offshore waters around the IRL. The bulk of the recreational harvest (35.7%), was taken in nearshore waters to the 3-mile state territorial limit. The IRL accounts for 34.1% of the harvest, while other inland waters, and offshore waters to the 200-mile federal limit account for 38.6% and 1.7% of the catch respectively.

    Figure 3. Survey data for the sea catfish recreational fishery showing the number of fishes harvested in East Florida waters from 1997 - 2004.

    Figure 4. Summary of the sea catfish recreational harvest and percentage of total by area from 1997 - 2004.

    Table 4. Summary data for recreational fishery in Eastern Florida waters for the sea catfish, Ariopsis felis, from 1997 - 2004.  Data provided by National Marine Fisheries Service, Fisheries Statistics Division, NOAA.

    Table 5. By-county annual and cumulative percentages of the sea catfish harvest for the years 1997 - 2001. Data provided by National Marine Fisheries Service, Fisheries Statistics Division, NOAA.

    Table 6. Summary of the sea catfish recreational harvest and percentage of total fish captured in each area from 1997 - 2004. Data provided by National Marine Fisheries Service, Fisheries Statistics Division, NOAA.

    Benson, N.G., ed. 1982. Life history requirements of selected finfish and shellfish in Mississippi Sound and adjacent areas. U.S. Fish and Wildlife Service, Office of Biological Services, Washington, D. C. FWS/OBS-81/51. 97 pp.

    Doermann, J.E., D. Huddleston, D. Lipsey, and S.H. Thompson. 1977. Age and rate of growth of the sea catfish, Arius felis, in Mississippi coastal waters. J. Tenn. Acad. Sci. 52(4):148 pp.

    Gallaway, B.J., and K. Strawn. 1974. Seasonal abundance and distribution of marine fisheries at a hot-water discharge in Galveston Bay, Texas. Contrib. Mar. Sci. 18:71-137.

    Gunter, G. 1938. Seasonal variations in abundance of certain estuarine and marine fishes in Louisiana with particular reference to life histories. Ecol. Monogr. 8(3):313-346.

    Gunter, G. 1947. Observations on breeding of the marine catfish, Gaelichthys felis (Linnaeus). Copeia 4:217-223.

    Gunter, G., and G.E. Hall. 1963. Biological investigation of the St. Lucie estuary (Florida) in connection with Lake Okeechobee discharges through the St. Lucie Canal. Gulf Res. Rep. 1(5):189-307.

    Harvey, E.J. 1972. Observations on the distribution of the sea catfish Arius felis larvae with and without chorion, with respect to salinity in the Biloxi Bay - Mississippi Sound Area. Miss. Acad. Sci. 17:77.

    IGFA, 2001 Database of IGFA angling records until 2001. IGFA, Fort Lauderdale, USA.

    Jones, P.W., F.D. Martin, and J.D. Hardy, Jr. 1978. Development of fishes in the mid-Atlantic bight. An atlas of egg, larval, and juvenile stages. Acipenseridae through Ictaluridae. U.S. Fish and Wildlife Service. Biol. Serv. Program FWS/OBS-78/12. Vol . I : 301-307.

    Lee, G. 1937. Oral gestation in the marine catfish, Galeichthys felis. Copeia:49-56.

    Merriman, D. 1940. Morphological and embryological studies on two species of marine catfish, Bagre marinus and Galeichthys felis. Zoologica 25(13):22i-248.

    Muncy, R .J., and W.M. Wingo. 1983. Species profiles: life histories and environmental requirements of coastal invertebrates (Gulf of Mexico) & sea catfish and gafftopsail . U.S. Fish and Wildlife Service, Division of Biological Services, FWS/OBS-82/11.5. U.S. Army Corps of Engineers, TR EL-82-4. 17 pp.

    Perret, W.S., B.B. Barrett, W.R. Latapie, J.F. Pollard, W.R. Mock, G.B. Adkins, W.J. Gaidry, and C.J. White. 1971. Cooperative Gulf of Mexico estuarine inventory and study, Louisiana. Phase I. Area description by Perret, W.S. Phase II. Biology p. 31-69. La. Wildl. Fish. Comm. 171 pp.

    Pristas, P.J. and L. Trent. 1978. Seasonal abundance, size, and sex ratio of fishes caught in gill-nets in St. Andrew's Bay, Florida. Bull. Mar. Sci. 28(3):581-589.

    Reid, G.K., A. Inglis, and H.D. Hoese. 1956. Summer foods of some fish species in East Bay, Texas. Southwest Nat. 1(3):100-104.

    Snelson, F.F., Jr., T.J. Mulligan and S.E. Williams, 1984 Food habits, occurrence, and population structure of the bull shark, Carcharhinus leucas, in Florida coastal lagoons. Bull. Mar. sci. 34(1):71-80.

    Swingle, H.A. 1971. Biology of Alabama estuarine areas - Cooperative Gulf of Mexico estuarine inventory. Ala. Mar. Resour. Bull. 5. 123 pp.

    Swingle, H.A., and D.B. Bland. 1974. A study of the fishes of the coastal water courses of Alabama. Ala. Mar. Resour. Bull. 10:17-102.

    Taylor, W.R. and N.A. Menezes, 1978 Ariidae. In W. Fischer (ed.) FAO species identification sheets for fishery purposes. West Atlantic (Fishing Area 31). volume 1. FAO, Rome.

    Wang, R.T., and J.A.C. Nicol. 1977. Effects of fuel oil on sea catfish: feeding activity and cardiac responses. Bull. Environ. Contam. Toxicol. 18(2): 170-176.

    Ward, J.W. 1957. The reproduction and early development of the sea catfish, Galeichthys felis in the Biloxi (Mississippi) Bay. Copeia 4:295-298.

Report by: K. Hill, Smithsonian Marine Station
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Page last updated: September 20, 2005

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