‘Zombie Catfish’ Found in U.S. Waterways, Scientists Have Gross Explanation


Catfish are often synonymous with freshwater ponds and rivers in the southern U.S., providing locals with fish to catch and food to eat. But not all catfish might be the best idea to eat, especially if they’re what people refer to as “zombie catfish.” 

The Georgia Department of Natural Resources shared photos of one of these altered fish on its Facebook page and explained just what leads to the phenomenon. Part of the catfish‘s skin is peeled away, revealing green pieces of flesh underneath. It turns out enteric septicemia of catfish (ESC), also known as “hole in the head disease,” is caused by a bacterial infection in the fish. 

“Catfish affected with ESC often are seen swimming in tight circles, spiraling, spinning, and tail chasing. This erratic behavior is the result of nervous system impairment resulting from inflammation of the brain,” the post explained. “Affected fish may become lethargic and swim slowly near the edge of the pond, or they may hang in the water column with the head up and tail down. Catfish with ESC tend to stop eating shortly after becoming infected.”

Luckily, it’s possible to control just how prevalent ESC can become in catfish populations. “Various management practices can reduce the incidence and severity of ESC outbreaks. These include reducing stress, managing water quality, practicing biosecurity in the hatchery, using proper nutrition and feeding practices, and administering drugs and chemicals appropriately,” the agency explained. 

While it may appear gross, eating an infected catfish won’t have any effect on humans or even other animals. The Southern Regional Aquatic Center confirmed that the bacteria that causes ESC is “strictly a pathogen of fish and does not infect mammals or humans so there is no concern of zoonotic infection,” according to The Miami Herald

Still, just because you can eat it doesn’t mean you should. 

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