The young angler who took a catfish barb to the chest at a fishing hole in New Port Richey this week will soon be released from the hospital and is recovering well from his injuries, Pasco County Fire Rescue said Wednesday.
The agency has not released the name or age of the child at the request of his mother, spokesperson Corey Dierdorff told the Tampa Bay Times. Both are still rattled by what Dierdorff described as the “freak accident” that caused the child to be airlifted to the hospital Monday afternoon and rushed into emergency surgery to remove a hooked catfish barb from his chest.
The mother didn’t say where she and her son were fishing when he happened to catch a large catfish, Dierdorff said. Nor did they have the time to identify what kind of catfish the youngster reeled in before it managed to drive its long, serrated spine nearly two inches deep into the boy’s chest.
The needle-like spine broke off inside the boy, and the mother immediately began driving him toward a nearby emergency room, Dierdorff said. But as she drove, the boy began to have trouble breathing and he started shaking as his chest began to swell.
The quick-thinking mother then pulled into a Denny’s parking lot at 4442 US Highway 19 in New Port Richey and called 911, Dierdorff said. There, emergency crews were able to quickly medivac the boy to St. Joseph’s Hospital in Tampa.
Dierdorff said the boy was sent to the hospital as a “trauma alert” out of an abundance of caution due to his young age and the many questions that remained about what kind of fish pierced him and where it was.
“The child was suffering shortness of breath and we didn’t know how venomous the catfish was, so we wanted to make sure the doctors would be ready for anything when he got there,” Dierdorff said.
Whether found in freshwater or saltwater, all catfish species have long, hollow, bone-like spines hidden on their bodies for self-defense, according to the Florida Fish and Wildlife Conservation Commission. However, the toxins released from a catfish sting are rarely lethal.
Humans don’t have to worry about the long, whisker-like barbels that give the fish its name. The barbs are instead hidden in the two pectoral fins on each side and in the top, ray-like dorsal fin, according to Fish and Wildlife biologists.
According to Jeremy Wright, a researcher at the University of Michigan who studies venomous catfish, those barbs are strong enough to puncture the sole of a shoe, and their bony, serrated edges allow each one to lock into place whenever the fish feels threatened. Each barb has venom glands in its base that send a stream of poison into its attacker.
The toxicity of that poison varied greatly among the roughly 1,250 known species of venomous catfish, Wright said. But each works by targeting the nerves and breaking down red blood cells, resulting in reactions that range from a painful burning, stinging and throbbing sensation to “severe pain, blood flow, muscle spasms and respiratory distress,” Wright said.
Along with various levels of poison, the barbs also can send harmful bacteria and fungal infections into the bloodstream, Wright said, resulting in infections that last for months. The Florida Department of Health also cautions that those infections can sometimes lead to swelling, fainting or a reduced heart rate.
Florida is home to a variety of freshwater catfish species, including channel, flathead, bullhead, blue, white, yellow, and brown. In Florida’s coastal waters, though, are catfish with bigger, more dangerous barbs such as the gaff-topsail, which carries a sting similar to that of a stingray.
“The smaller the fish, the more likely you are to get stung,” Wright said.