What would you think if someone told you they saw a catfish walking across the street? You might think it’s the beginning of a corny joke or you might ask the person what drugs they had been taking. No drugs and no joke, this actually is something that happens here in Florida. The walking catfish is a catfish that uses its pectoral fins like legs to help it move across dry land. It doesn’t have a walk like other animals have; it’s more like something between a crawl and a slither. The walking catfish can grow to 1 and a half feet in length and weigh almost 3 pounds. The body is grayish brown and covered in small white spots. It doesn’t have any scales, but its body is covered in mucus that protects the catfish when out of the water. Its defense mechanism is an embedded stinger or thorn-like mechanism behind the fins.
Where did these unusual catfish come from? They were brought into Florida in the early 1960s from Asia for the aquaculture market. It is believed the catfish started populating local waterways after escaping a transport truck or a fish farm in Broward County. And some good intentioned people might have purposefully released the walking catfish into the ecosystem, not realizing the impact it would have on native fish and their food supply. This catfish greedily eats both other fish and aquatic weeds. The walking catfish can thrive in any stagnant water. They live in muddy ponds, ditches and canals. In Florida, where stagnant water can be found most everywhere, these catfish have moved right in. Even as ditches and other small bodies of water dry up, the walking catfish merely walks itself over to the next appropriate body of water.
Walking catfish have been banned in Florida since 1967 or 1968. This banning of the catfish actually caused the release by fish farmer of their supply of walking catfish into waterways making the problem worse. Now the invasive catfish is invading fish farms by walking to them and dining on the fish stocks. Many aquaculture farmers are now erecting fences to keep them out.
So, the next time you think you see a fish walking down the road, you are not going crazy. And you are not suddenly in a horror movie. You are very much sane and seeing one of the most invasive species of fish in Florida.