The white barbel (Galeichthys feliceps), popularly known as white sea catfish, is one of the numerous species of surf fish caught on the Namibian coast from the beach or from boats. It is feared but also revered as a delicacy. This fish without scales needs to be handled with care because it is equipped with three razor sharp spines: one close to the dorsal fin and one in each of the pectoral fins. In the face of danger the catfish raises the spines by extending the fins from the body. In that situation it can quickly happen that one of the spines penetrates a careless angler’s hand or hits another part of his body if the fish is still thrashing on the hook of the line. A sting from a catfish spine is a very painful experience.
It is dangerous if anglers leave barbel heads lying on the beach: unsuspecting visitors could step onto a sting. In some cases this has caused painful inflammation that would not heal for weeks, even though barbel spines are not poisonous like the spines in some other fish. White barbels do not inject poison with their sting. In the experience of a well-known medical doctor in Swakopmund, swelling and inflammation are caused by bacteria, the protective mucus that covers the entire fish or by dirt that may have penetrated the wound. Since no poison is injected, the biggest risk is an inflammation which can become very painful if left untreated. For many years this doctor has successfully treated any injuries caused by barbel spines with antibiotics and antihistamines. According to him the number of such incidents has dropped dramatically in recent years. Fifteen years ago he saw one or two cases per week, whereas now it may be one per month.
Many anglers believe that catfish stocks have drastically declined. They also say that the fish they catch is rather small compared to earlier times. White barbels are considered a special delicacy among German-speaking Namibians. The fish is hot smoked and ready to eat within six hours. Some restaurants offer catfish as an appetizer. Namibians, who know barbels from the rivers on the northern border, or from the periodically flooded Cuvelai drainage system in the central north, also go after this fish but cook it on the fire or in a pot.
The white barbel grows to a length of up to 55 centimetres. This species is found close to the coast in a depth of down to 120 metres. It prefers cloudy water, where it looks for crabs, small fish and invertebrates in the muddy ground. The catfish does not mind feeding on crayfish either, and to some extent it is a scavenger. Among its enemies are certain shark species. A few years ago a scientist examined a shark that had been caught in Lüderitz and found a catfish spine encapsulated in the shark’s liver. Probably the spine got into the liver by penetrating the stomach wall, then broke off and was encapsulated.
Little is known about the white barbels on our coast. According to Dr Hannes Holtzhausen, a former researcher at the Ministry of Fisheries and Marine Resources, a total of 792 barbels were tagged as part of a tagging project on surf fish until June 2002. A tiny plastic chip was attached to the back next to the dorsal fin. But none of the tagged fish were ever caught again. That left the scientists puzzled because a certain percentage of other tagged surf fish species were in fact hooked again later on.
White barbels are mouth brooders. For several months the male carries the eggs and then the young in his mouth to protect them. It is not known, however, where barbels move around during the year, when they mate, where they spawn and how fast the juveniles grow. An angler with a valid fishing licence is allowed to catch 30 barbels per day.
At a certain place in the Kuiseb Delta, near Walvis Bay, countless otoliths (ear-stones) of white barbels can be found. They are almost round and about six millimetres in diameter. It is unclear how those otoliths got there. A possible explanation is that earlier inhabitants of the coast caught the fish in the shallow lagoon, cleaned it there and left the heads behind. But there is no proof of that.
Author: Dirk Heinrich