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Top Species: Catfish producers seek stabilization, safety

After tough years, surviving producers ready to take next step

Catfish can be a versatile option for fun and popular dishes like quesadillas. - Photos courtesy of The Catfish Institute
By Joanne Friedrick
March 01, 2014

Using words like “stabilize” and “resurrect,” U.S. catfish producers are optimistic about their industry after facing several years of challenges from high feed prices, reduced acreage and competition from imports. They are also awaiting the impact of the recent decision to change oversight for catfish inspection.

The outcome of the 2014 Farm Bill included a provision to move catfish inspection from the Food and Drug Administration (FDA) to the U.S. Department of Agriculture (USDA). A spokesperson with USDA’s Food Safety & Inspection Service says the agency has a proposed rule regarding catfish inspection and will be working to publish a final rule within the appropriate time frame. 

The agency is also fully prepared to work with all stakeholders, including the FDA, to assure that catfish inspection is implemented as outlined in the Farm Bill, according to the spokesperson.

Roger Barlow, president of The Catfish Institute (TCI), who supported the move, says “consumer confidence is critical” and inspection is an important aspect of that. As to which group should handle the inspections, Barlow points out “we’re not fishermen, we’re farmers” so USDA was the appropriate body.

While some see the new law as harmful to imported catfish products, Barlow says, “We’re in a global environment and this is just part of that. The American consumer has a reasonable expectation that all products should be safe for them to consume.”

GM Fred Johnson of Superior Catfish Products in Macon, Ga., has mixed feelings on the inspection issue. “USDA is quite a different breed from FDA,” he says, adding that it could have an adverse economic impact on the processor depending on how they have to pay for on-site inspections.

But, he adds, “If it helps the quality and safety in the food chain with imports, then I’m for it. I do see the value in USDA-inspected product.”

When they’re not debating inspection programs, catfish farmers are talking about normal issues such as decreased acreage, and feed and processing prices. U.S. catfish remains a Southern specialty, with Mississippi, Alabama, Arkansas and Texas accounting for 95 percent of total sales in 2012, according to the USDA’s National Agricultural Statistics Service. Domestic farmed catfish sales in 2012 fell to $341 million, down 20 percent from 2011’s $423 million. In terms of production, water surface acreage in 2012 declined 7 percent, totaling 83,000 acres, down from 89,400 the previous year. And total operator numbers were 624 in 2013, down 13 percent from 718 in 2012.

Yet processing volume increased 11 percent this past year, according to Dr. Terry Hanson, associate professor and aquaculture economist at Auburn University’s Department of Fisheries and Allied Aquaculture. The industry processed 334 million pounds (round weight) in 2013 vs. 300 million pounds in 2012. Barlow attributes the uptick to improvements in the growing and the production processes.

Catering to the core   

Superior Catfish Products has been processing about 400,000 pounds a week, which is the normal amount in the pre-Lenten season, says Johnson. Production is up from last fall, he says, but down a bit from two years ago, although that slight dip isn’t associated with any particular issue. 

Sales, Johnson adds, “are running par for the course.” Most of the catfish handled by Superior stays within five or six surrounding states. Catfish has a core following, says Johnson, so he doesn’t see many people turning away from the species. But he isn’t seeing many converts.

Imports are still a presence, he says, and the economy is what usually dictates if someone is going to move away from catfish to something less expensive.

Prices have been holding at about $1.10 per pound to the farmer, which translates to between $4 and $5 a pound retail for fillets, says Johnson. Catfish’s biggest competitor, pangasius imports, can still be had for less than $2 a pound, however.

 “Customers are willing to pay the price now,” he says, “but we might see some people go to [imports] if price becomes an issue.”

Feed prices, which are up about $150 a ton over five years ago, have eased somewhat, he says, but further decreases aren’t likely. With the 20 to 30 cents more per fish that they are getting, the increased feed prices have been offset somewhat.

Although the unusually cold weather in the South this year has had a bit of an impact, Randy Rhodes, president of Harvest Select in Northport, Ala., doesn’t anticipate too many issues. There could be a shortage of supply or a limit on certain sizes, he says, but that won’t be known for sure until the ponds are emptied.

Rhodes has seen an uptick in catfish demand, in part because there’s “not a lot of up-and-coming whitefish.”

Having seen both peaks and valleys in the past, Rhodes says it’s incumbent on leaders in the catfish industry to “try and build on the positive. We have had a quality product for over 40 years and we should push it forward. We can resurrect what we had.” Rhodes says the industry has learned its lesson, and the focus now needs to be on profitability and consistency. 

Looking at the industry overall, Superior Catfish’s Johnson says, “It does seem like we’re still trying to get stable. I see some forward movement to stabilize
the industry.”

Stabilization is also the word Barlow applies to the state of domestic catfish. “The last couple of years, we saw a reduction in the number of acres devoted to catfish and the number of farmers,” he says. Record-high feed prices caused some farmers to exit the market, turning their ponds into fields for crops, but that trend has slowed.

The current focus, he says, is marketing. “There is so much competition for the center of the plate with other proteins,” he says. “We have to develop tighter strategies and focus on consumers and how to reach them.”

The Catfish Farmers of America, which met in New Orleans for its 46th annual convention in February, is continuing to address this topic, says Barlow.

One of the successful programs TCI has launched has been the Farmer of the Year campaign, which highlights the top catfish farmers from Arkansas, Alabama and Mississippi.  

With a renewed focus on farm-to-table production, Barlow says consumers want to know where and from whom their food is coming. “We realize our fate is in the hands of the savvy consumer who is looking for information.”

To help reach consumers, Barlow says there is a bigger push toward using social media. Additionally, TCI recently revamped its website, introduced a new cookbook and has developed new recipe videos. 

TCI is looking to work more closely with retailers and foodservice operators going forward, taking “more of a rifle, rather than a shotgun, approach,” says Barlow. 

“We’re in talks with lots of retailers,” he says. “We’ve reached out to them, they’ve reached out to us and the possibilities are tremendous.”

Johnson has also heard that the industry is looking for ways to join forces as other commodities have and focus on issues such as food safety, nutrition and marketing.

When asked about this strategy, Barlow says, “We have a lot of options ahead of us. So why not look at what other groups are doing in production agriculture? It gives you a discipline when you collectively come together like that.”

Auburn University’s Hanson says in two meetings with catfish processors this year, the participants were presented with information on how producers of foods such as Washington apples, lamb, pork, poultry, blueberries and potatoes were presenting their products to consumers and looking at ways to add value.

“A lot of these fellows just have their nose to the ground,” says Hanson, and these meetings were meant to gauge “how they see themselves.”

Walk on the wild side 

Like the other catfish-producing states, Louisiana has seen a reduction in production acreage, says Kristin McClaren, assistant executive director at the Louisiana Seafood Promotion & Marketing Board in Baton Rouge, La.

But the farmed industry’s loss has been a gain for wild catfish, she says. The state generated an estimated 4 million pounds of wild catfish in 2012, she says. Of course, she says, wild catfish is a more unpredictable commodity, relying on weather and other factors to determine the availability and even the size of the fish.

“Size of wild is the biggest challenge for retailers and restaurants,” she says, because they want to rely on a uniform product. Flavor can also be variable, since it is influenced by the nutrients found in the environment. Right now, she says, they are watching the potential snowmelt in the many states that border the Mississippi River.

“Catfish like the fresh water (from snowmelt) coming through,” she says. “The nutrients in it will serve our catfish fishery well.”

Harlon Pearce, who owns and operates Harlon’s LA Fish & Seafood in Kenner, La., processes about 1 million pounds of wild catfish a year and fillets are running about $4 a pound.

While he sees a gap left by catfish farmers who have exited the industry, “we can’t produce enough to take over the lack of farm-raised catfish,” he says. Like farmed catfish, wild sales stay within the Southeast.

Even with a wild product, he says they are processing year round, and are seeing more fishermen affiliated with other species, such as crabs, moving into catfish to supplement their business. 

Contributing editor Joanne Friedrick lives in Portland, Maine

Find other SeaFood Business articles discussing catfish here.

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