can catfish live in saltwater

Can Catfish Live in Saltwater?

We all know catfish like to hang out at the bottom of our ponds, rivers, and lakes. But did you know there are catfish in the ocean as well? Catfish are a diverse species of ray-finned fish with many ocean-dwelling types. In fact, catfish remains and skeletons show up on Florida beaches very often!

Can catfish live in saltwater? Yes, they can! Only certain breeds of catfish can live in salt and brackish water, though. You cant take a channel or madtom catfish and expect it to live in the ocean.  Just as you cant take a hardhead catfish and put it in a pond. 

Read on to learn about the types of saltwater catfish and their danger levels, as well as if you can eat catfish! Also, discover where saltwater catfish live in the ocean, and their predators, and prey. Learn about their reproduction process and best tips for fishing saltwater catfish. Lastly, what is the big difference between saltwater catfish and freshwater catfish?

Saltwater Catfish

The two most abundant breeds of saltwater catfish in North America are the Hardhead catfish and the Gafftopsail catfish. The hardhead catfish has a stinger on the front of each of its fins full of venomous cells.

Keep in mind, their whiskers or barbels do not sting, on any catfish. Fully grown hardheads can weigh up to three to four pounds. Hardheads can live anywhere from four to eight years.

Gafftopsail catfish are unique in the way of having a back dorsal fin that sticks straight up off their spine. Gafftops can get much larger than hardhead catfish, fully grown gafftopsails can be anywhere from seven to ten pounds.

Fishermen have reported seeing gafftopsails at the highest being twenty-four pounds. They can live anywhere from seven to ten years. Gafftopsail catfish are one of the breeds that have an entirely poisonous spine. So if ever handling these fish, only touch from the bottom!

Brackish Water Catfish Breeds

While many catfish typically stick to freshwater or saltwater, there are a couple of breeds that intermingle. The following are all catfish species that have been found in brackish water:

  • Australian shark catfish
  • Berney’s shark catfish
  • Silurus glanis catfish
  • Clariid and Ictaluriid catfish
  • Banjo catfish
  • Ictalurus punctatus catfish

Many originally come from fresh or saltwater but have been found to tolerate and even sometimes thrive in mixed acidic settings.

Are Saltwater Catfish Poisonous?

Yes, many are.

There are breeds of catfish in the ocean that are harmless, but I would be cautious nonetheless.

The two most abundant breeds in the Gulf of Mexico and around Florida are poisonous (Hardhead and Gafftopsail). Neither are lethally poisonous, but without proper medical treatment, you could get a gnarly infection.

Are Saltwater Catfish Edible?

Yes, saltwater catfish are harmless to eat and some really enjoy them.

It is important to note, many do not think they taste like freshwater catfish. They do have a bad reputation with fishermen though and often get thrown back.

We are not sure if it’s because they are bottom feeders, or because overall it is hard to clean these fish. If you do decide to try out saltwater catfish, the top-ranked way to enjoy it is deep-fried.

Where Do Saltwater Catfish Live?

Hardhead catfish usually like to stay within the Western Atlantic Ocean.

They are popular for being found in the Florida Keys, and The Gulf of Mexico, very close to the shore.

Occasionally, hardhead catfish will migrate up brackish river exits with muddy floors but never typically enter fully freshwater.

Gafftopsail catfish are also found in the Atlantic Ocean, near the Florida Keys and the Gulf of Mexico. Gafftopsails also enjoy migrating to the Caribbean seas and down to South America. Gafftopsails also experiment with brackish water occasionally with good floor conditions, but again never fully into freshwater.

Saltwater Predators

Sharks are one of the biggest predators of saltwater catfish, especially the tiger and bull shark. Alligators and Otters can both be predators depending on the region the catfish is in. Other large finned fish such as Cobia, eat catfish as well. Obviously, birds and humans are also common predators. Catfish can sometimes be predatory toward other catfish as well if it’s a smaller breed or size.

Saltwater Prey

As always, catfish of any breed usually will eat anything around them. Their go-to meals in saltwater are:

  • Shrimp
  • Sea waste
  • Smaller fish
  • Crabs
  • Invertebrates
  • Frogs
  • Algae
  • Dead fish, or other animals
  • Seagrass
  • Seaweed
  • Sea cucumbers

There are probably plenty more to list, because like I said catfish will eat anything and everything.


Hardhead and Gafftopsail catfish are paternal mouthbrooders. Both of these catfish come from the same species, so they both breed from May to September. Males and females reach sexual maturity usually before the age of two.

After fertilizing, the male carries the eggs in his mouth until they hatch. The several unfertilized eggs leftover will attach to the viable eggs, absorbing and feeding the father catfish. This is essential because the father catfish cannot feed for those three to six days their eggs take to incubate and hatch.

There are plenty of advantages to mouthbrooding, the biggest being the safety of the eggs. Mouthbrooding makes up for what female catfish lack in, laying eggs. Female hardhead and gafftopsail catfish usually only lay 20-60 eggs per session, which is rather low for fish.

Saltwater Catfish Fishing

Saltwater catfish fishing can be action-packed and lots of fun. The recommended baits for saltwater catfish are just the smelliest, oiliest, or bloodiest bait you can find. Professionals enjoy using cut-up mackerel or squid. You can also use shrimp, frogs, or other caught fish.

Hardhead and Gafftopsail catfish are some of the easiest fish to catch in the ocean and give a good fight too. This type of catfish would make a great beginner breed to target if you’re looking to fish for saltwater catfish.

Saltwater Catfish Vs. Freshwater Catfish

One of the biggest differences between saltwater and freshwater catfish is how they reproduce.

Freshwater catfish are a lot more careless with their reproduction and often fail for this reason.

Another big difference is how they taste, saltwater catfish are known to have a fuller flavor with a briny taste. Many usually prefer freshwater catfish to saltwater when it comes to eating them!

Another important difference is the most common freshwater catfish are not poisonous or harmful at all, while the saltwater breeds are poisonous. This is definitely something to be mindful of when debating where to go fishing!

Conclusion: Can Catfish Live in Saltwater? AKA – Catfish and The Ocean

So, do catfish live in saltwater? Yes, they do, and brackish water too! Most breeds like to stick to their preferred water type though, and won’t go past brackish. The most common breeds of saltwater catfish are Hardhead and Gafftopsail catfish. These catfish are mainly located in the Atlantic ocean and are poisonous.

These breeds of saltwater catfish are unique for their breeding techniques, mouthbrooding. Which is a process where the male father catfish helps protect the fertilized eggs until they hatch.

These saltwater catfish are also popular for catching and eating. The best bait to catch saltwater catfish is the bloodiest, oiliest, smelliest bait you can find. The best way to have saltwater catfish to eat is deep-fried.