NEW PORT RICHEY — They hadn't planned on a fishing adventure. Or that it would be such easy pickings — in the street.
Nick and Elena Katsouris were more than a little surprised on Thursday to see 30 or more fish lumbering across the Greenbrook Plaza parking lot and down adjacent Erin Brook Drive. They grabbed brooms from the back of the family's jewelry store. Kevin Nguyen, who owns a nail salon a few doors down, donned a pair of gloves. Then the trio went to work scooping and sweeping up the catfish "walking" down the street.
"I was pretty surprised that there would be fish on land," said Nick, 16. "I never thought I'd see that."
But with all the recent rain, walking catfish might become more common. In fact, a few weeks ago, residents in a Pinellas subdivision were just as surprised to see the land-roving fish.
"I have probably had more calls in the last couple of weeks than I have had in the last five years," said Paul Shafland, 62, of the Florida Fish and Wildlife Conservation Commission.
Walking catfish, otherwise known as Clarias batrachus, is an exotic species native to Southeast Asia. "They've been here since about 1968," said Shafland, who serves as director of the Florida Non-native Fish Laboratory in Boca Raton.
"They became extremely abundant in the late '60s, peaked in the '80s, then decreased dramatically in total abundance."
The fish typically live in storm drains and have the ability to make short treks over land by using their pectoral fins to pull themselves along.
"My guess," said Shafland, "is that when there is flooding, the water down in the storm drains becomes low in oxygen with the runoff and they (catfish) flush their way out. They pop up in the road and then they just retreat back to where they came from."
Nguyen figures about 20 catfish made it into his bucket.
So what were their plans for the catch? "We don't know yet," said Elena, 15. "We might make dinner. Who knows?"
Shafland said he tasted one about 25 years ago.
"I didn't care for it," he said. "It was a strong fish."
Walking catfish haven't had a negative impact on native fish, as expected, Shafland said. Still, he'd rather they were gone altogether and wants to remind folks that it is illegal to keep live exotics. His advice: Go ahead and catch them if you want. But put them on ice — not your aquarium.
Michele Miller can be reached by e-mail at firstname.lastname@example.org or at (727) 869-6251.