Where Does 'Catfish' Come From? Online Hoax Movie Inspired By Fisherman's Lore

 @rpalmerscience
on January 17 2013 10:41 AM
Catfish
1877 illustration of a catfish, from the magazine Popular Science Wikimedia Commons

After it was revealed that the late girlfriend of Notre Dame’s star linebacker Manti Te’o probably never existed at all, the university’s athletic director said the footballer was the victim of an online “catfishing” hoax.

“I would refer all of you to the documentary called 'Catfish' and the MTV show that is a derivative of that documentary,” Jack Swarbrick told reporters on Wednesday, according to the Hollywood Reporter.

‘Catfishing,’ a slang term for creating fake profiles on social media to create false identities, has its origins in the 2010 movie ‘Catfish,’ a pseudo-documentary that chronicled a young man’s online friendship with a woman that turned out to be very different from her Facebook profile.

(Spoilers ahead!)

In the movie, one character tells a story of how seafood suppliers had trouble shipping live cod from the U.S. to China – on arrival, the meat was mushy because the cod had been sluggish. But the suppliers found that if they put one of the cod’s natural enemies, the catfish, in the tank with them, they stayed active, and the exercise made their flesh stay firmer and tastier. So the story goes.

“There are those people who are catfish in life,” the character says, “and they keep you on your toes. They keep you guessing, they keep you thinking, they keep you fresh. And I thank god for the catfish because we would be droll, boring and dull if we didn't have somebody nipping at our fin.”

It’s unclear whether this anecdote is something seafood suppliers actually do – or whether exercising fish would actually improve meat quality.

A bluefin tuna caught on a hook will fight ferociously, which, like any strenuous exercise, means its muscles start accumulating lots of lactic acid. The lactic acid can cause an unsightly discoloration, or “burn,” in the tuna’s flesh. So when fishing for bluefin tuna, which can fetch incredibly high prices if the meat is fresh, anglers have to try and get the big fish on deck quickly. There are workshops that teach fishermen how to purge tuna of lactic acid burn. On tuna farms, fish are quickly dispatched and suspended in salt water close to freezing temperature to prevent lactic acid burn.

What we typically think of as a catfish – the one with whiskers that gets fried up in Louisiana – is typically a freshwater fish, and would probably not qualify as a “natural enemy” of the saltwater cod. But catfishes, known more formally as the order Siluriformes, are a vast and diverse order of fishes, with many seafaring species. Typically, though, anglers think of these saltwater catfish as trash fish.

Anarhichas lupus, the Atlantic wolffish, is also known as the "Atlantic catfish" and often lives alongside the Atlantic cod. But the wolffish doesn’t eat other fish, preferring to dine on crustaceans and mollusks.

Another possible  -- and perhaps more applicable -- origin for the term “catfishing,” though it’s not the one given by the “Catfish” movie or spinoff TV show, could lie on the restaurant side of seafood. Some restaurants serve patrons a cheaper fish labeled as a different, more expensive species, and charge them for the fancier seafood.

A 2011 Boston Globe investigation of seafood mislabeling at local restaurants and markets found that patrons of a Dorchester restaurant were victims of a very different kind of catfish hoax.

“The $23 flounder filet turned out to be a Vietnamese catfish known as swai -- nutritionally inferior and often priced under $4 a pound,” the Globe reported.

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