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The Gafftopsail catfish, Bagre marinus. Illustration by Diana Rome Peebles 1998. Courtesy of Florida Fish and Wildlife Conservation Commission, Division of Marine Fisheries.

Species Name: Bagre marinus Mitchill, 1815
Common Name: Gafftopsail Catfish
Bigmouth catfish, gafftop
Synonymy: None

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

    Other Taxonomic Groupings

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

    Species Description

    Both marine catfishes (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 anterior 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 their body color, which is typically steel blue dorsally, fading to silver laterally, and white ventrally.

    Bagre marinus, the gafftopsail catfish, is an elongate marine catfish that reaches 57.1 cm (22.4 inches) in length (Jones et al. 1978). There is a single dorsal fin having 1 strong, serrated spine and 7 soft rays. The first ray of the dorsal and pectoral fins have extended, white filaments equal to or exceeding the length of the dorsal spine. The anal fin has 22-28 rays. The pectoral fins have 1 spine and 11-14 rays, and the ventral fin has 6 rays. There is a distinctive V-shaped indentation on the posterior margin of the anal fin.The head is slightly depressed, with the mouth inferior. Three pairs of barbels are present, one pair on the maxilla and 2 pairs set under the chin. The maxillary pair of barbels are elongate and reach nearly to the ventral fins, which are set well behind the dorsal fin. The adipose fin is tipped in black, while the remainder of the fins are pale to 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 Panama (Muncy and Wingo 1983).

    IRL Distribution

    Bagre marinus is common throughout the IRL.


    Age, Size, Lifespan

    The maximum reported size for Bagre marinus was 69.0 cm (27.2 inches) total length (TL), with a maximum reported weight of 4.4 kg (9.7 pounds) (IGFA 2001).


    Bagre marinus females caught on the Gulf coast of Alabama had well-developed oocytes beginning in April (Swingle 1971). Gafftopsail catfishes spawn repeatedly over an approximately 10 day period from May - August in inshore mudflats (Jones et al. 1978). Eggs are passed to, or picked up by, males, who incubate and brood them in their mouths for 60 - 80 days (Gunter 1947; Ward 1957).


    Eggs are large at fertilization, measuring 15-26 mm (0.6 - 1.02 inches) in diameter (Merriman 1940) and are gold to yellow in color. Parental care by males offsets low fecundity of females, which have only 20 - 65 eggs per spawning event (Merriman 1940; Ward 1957; Jones et al. 1971). 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 Bagre marinus are brooded in the mouth of males and hatch within 42 -70 days when held under laboratory conditions (Jones et al. 1971). Larvae measure 45-78 mm (1.77 - 3.07 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, retuning to its mouth for protection, for a short time thereafter.

    Juveniles measure 80-100 mm (3.15 - 3.94 inches) TL.



    Juveniles are reported to prefer water temperatures of 16-30°C (61 - 86 °F) (Muncy and Wingo 1983). Juneau (1975) reported juveniles in Vermillion Bay, Louisiana during summer and fall when water temperatures ranged between 20.4 - 30.5°C (69 - 87 °F).

    Adult gafftopsail catfishes prefer water temperatures of above 25°C (77 °F) (Perret et al. 1971). They avoid low temperature waters in the winter months by migrating offshore where water temperatures are more stable, returning to inshore areas in the spring.


    Juveniles have no specific salinity preferences, and are found in waters of 0-31 parts per thousand (ppt). Adults have been reported to inhabit fresh water areas, but tend to be more common where salinity ranges from 5 - 30 ppt (Perret et al. 1971; Jones et al. 1978).


    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 other fishes comprise the bulk of the diet (Merriman 1940).

    Males carrying eggs or juveniles do not feed (Muncy and Wingo 1983).


    Though Bagre marinus has has been reported in freshwater locations (Muncy and Wingo 1983), most juveniles leave estuarine areas for offshore waters in the winter months, but return to bays and estuaries from May - June, prior to spawning (Gunter 1938). Trawl surveys in the estuaries of Mississippi, Alabama, Louisiana and Texas reveal that 10 - 100 times fewer juvenile gafftopsail catfishes are captured inshore than are sea catfishes (Hoese et al. 1968; Perret et al. 1971; Swingle 1971; Franks et al. 1972; Barrett et al. 1978). Juneau (1975) reported Bagre marinus inhabits estuaries in Louisiana primarily throughout the summer and fall months.

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

    Activity Time

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


    Special Status

    Limited commercial and recreational importance.

    Fisheries Importance

    Commercial Fishery
    Though edible, the gafftopsail 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, gafftopsail catfishes do have limited commercial importance and are harvested for industrial purposes in commercial bottom trawling operations (Muncy and Wingo 1983).

    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 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 gafftopsail catfish is considered a nuisance species by many, between 1997 - 2001 recreational anglers in the IRL harvested 46,755 gafftopsail catfishes, ranking it fortieth among the most harvested IRL species. It was also captured from other inshore waters, nearshore waters and offshore waters around the IRL. The information below reflects angler survey information taken from the 5-county area that encompasses the Indian River Lagoon. Approximately 317,024 gafftopsail catfishes were harvested in east central Florida between 1997 - 2001. The bulk of the recreational harvest (45.5%), was taken in nearshore waters to the 3-mile state territorial limit. Inland waters other than the IRL account for 38.9% of the harvest, while the IRL accounts for14.7%, and offshore waters to the 200-mile federal limit account for only 0.9% of the catch.

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

    Figure 4. Summary of the gafftopsail 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 gafftopsail catfish, Bagre marinus, from 1997 - 2004.  Data provided by National Marine Fisheries Service, Fisheries Statistics Division, NOAA.

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

    Table 6. Summary of the gafftopsail 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.


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Report by: K. Hill, Smithsonian Marine Station
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Page last updated: September 16, 2005

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