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Top 10 Species: Catfish

Domestic catfish industry works to rebuild inventory, compete with imports

By Thyra Porter
July 01, 2007

Catfish are an ancient species that have nourished humans pretty much as long as we have been around. Catfish fossils have turned up in every continent, and even now members of this diverse species continue to thrive worldwide - except in Antarctica.

In the United States, more recent catfish skeletons are likely to turn up alongside Interstate I-290, which runs through Alabama and Mississippi and is known in the industry as the Catfish Corridor. It is here in the American South where the domestic species has its deepest roots, both as an aquaculture industry and a blue-plate special. And it is in the South that the catfish producers continue to rebuild inventory following a market-wide recession in 2002.

According to the U.S. Department of Agriculture, catfish processing slipped 12 percent in April, totaling 37.9 million pounds, the lowest reported processing rate since April 1995, when 36.6 million pounds were processed. Prices though, were up in April to $2.57 per pound, nearly 6 cents above the same period a year ago.

The slide in sales comes as domestic catfish farmers work to rebuild inventory lost five years ago when a number of farmers closed shop for good, says Rob Mayo, president of Carolina Classics in Ayden, N.C.

Mayo says a boom of catfish sales in the 1990s had led to a buildup of capacity at processing plants, and then subsequent demand for lower-cost fish to fuel that increased processing capacity.

The price competition drove a number of farms out of the market, Mayo says.

Because it takes two years to raise a catfish for sale, and generally catfish are harvested only once a year, the business is very capitol intensive, and rebuilding inventory has been a challenge, adds Mayo.

"[Catfish processors] made the decision in 2003-2004 to get out of the business and it takes several years for those inventories to get liquidated," Mayo says. While he adds more fish will be grown this year than last, he notes it still will be two more years before those fish can come to market.


An aquaculture success story

While wild catfish are a sport-fisherman's hobby, the vast majority of catfish served up on American dinner plates and in restaurants come from aquaculture farms ranging from China and Vietnam to alongside the Mississippi Delta, where the farms have become one of the most successful examples of domestic aquaculture ventures.

Ninety-four percent of all U.S. catfish is raised in Alabama, Arkansas, Louisiana and Mississippi, according to The Catfish Institute in Jackson, Miss.

The fish found at those farms, channel catfish ( Ictalurus punctatus ), is successful partly because it is one of the best protein converters around: It takes 2 pounds of feed to raise 1 pound of catfish compared to a 7:1 ratio for beef, for example. Also, the so-called channel cat is thought to be the fastest growing of all the many catfish varieties.

U.S. catfish farming started in Arkansas in the 1960s, and while becoming one of the United States' most successful aquaculture ventures - and one praised for environmentally sensitive processing - in recent years U.S. farms have had to compete with less expensive catfish imports.

Thanks in part to the decline of domestic inventory, imports of freshwater catfish from countries including China, Brazil and Vietnam in March were 6.43 million pounds, a nearly 97 percent increase from the same period in 2006, according to the USDA.

While the domestic industry has been aggressive in protecting its turf - in 2002 the industry filed a successful antidumping case against the Vietnamese catfish industry, which led to U.S. tariffs of 37 to 64 percent on pangasius, a member of the Pagasiidae family of catfish found in Southeast Asia - the most recent aid has come from the Chinese melamine in fish feed scandal in May.

As a result, U.S. seafood buyers and federal and state agencies have ratcheted up inspections of imported catfish, says John 
Victoria, president of Western Edge in Pittsburgh, a Chinese catfish importer.

Imports have recently slowed as a result, according to Victoria.

"Sales were on the uptick until the shit hit the fan two months ago," he says. "We've seen a dramatic slowdown."

Victoria attributes that drop to the melamine scare, even though melamine itself wasn't found in the imported catfish. Rather, "They started testing and found banned antibiotics," he says. What Southern state agencies found were fluoroquinolones, antibiotics banned for use in the United States for food animals.

The reaction was immediate: Wal-Mart pulled imported catfish off its shelves in several states.

"That slowed down the sales of imports almost immediately," says Victoria.

The Alabama Department of Agriculture and Industries also ordered a stop-sale on all Chinese catfish this spring, 
after Commissioner Ron Sparks said 14 of 20 Chinese catfish samples had tested positive for fluoroquinolones.

For Western Edge's primary customers - wholesalers and retailers - the recent problems have been more of a contraction than a large-scale decline of sales.

"There has been such large growth in imports of catfish to the United States that this scare has just slightly stunted our highly accelerated growth in this market," says Victoria.

He attributes that growth partly to the fact that imported catfish, like many imports to the United States, on average costs less than its domestic counterparts.

For his part, Victoria is taking a zero-tolerance approach to fluoroquinolones, with independent lab testing on the catfish to assure customers that the product is chemical-free, he says.

Brett Borges, purchasing director for New Orleans Fish House, a distributor, says those inventory problems plaguing the U.S. farmers have helped open the U.S. market to the cheaper imports.

"One thing I've noticed over the past year is that I've tried to offer certain sizes of domestically produced catfish and the farmers haven't been able to provide those sizes because of lack of supply," Borges says.

"They have the sales, but lack the inventory," he adds.

Despite that, New Orleans Fish House sells mostly domestic catfish, Borges says, to restaurants like Ezell's Fish Camp in Lavaca, Ala., one of the most famous catfish houses in the South.

Ezell's, a former hunting lodge where the waitstaff still tend to wear camouflage, sits on the banks of the Tombigbee River. It has been run as a commercial restaurant since the 1950s, although 20 years ago gave up serving the local river catfish in favor of those raised in catfish ponds, says Assistant Manager Janice Johnson.

She says commercially farmed catfish is simply more consistent in both size and quality.

"We order certain sizes and you can tell them what size you want," says Johnson. "You don't come out with a little minnow when you think you've got a big whale. You know what you are going to get when you order it."

Ezell's sells its catfish grilled, broiled and fried, she says, showing off the versatility of the mild-tasting white fish.

"We have customers who come back four times a week for their catfish," she says.

U.S.-raised catfish also recently got a boost on the environmental front from The Monterey Bay Aquarium's National Seafood Guide, which listed U.S.-farm-raised catfish among its "Best" choices for consumers looking to both protect ocean wildlife and eat healthy food.

Healthy eating has spurred another trend within the industry, so-called "natural" catfish.

Carolina Classics' natural catfish, raised without any antibiotics or chemicals like the copper sulfate used to fight algae blooms in catfish ponds, has become a much bigger part of the business over the past several years, says Mayo.

He attributes that trend to consumers who are more willing to pay higher prices for fish raised without chemicals, and lists buyers from such upscale supermarkets as Wegmans and Wild 
Oats and restaurant chain Legal Sea Foods.

Mayo wouldn't release specific figures, but says that the all-natural market is growing to the point that the company is devoting more of its 3,000-acre fish farm to natural production methods every year.

"General economic conditions are good enough for people to afford to eat what they want to eat," Mayo says. "And a growing percentage of the market wants species that are produced responsibly and also taste delicious."

Carolina Classics controls all parts of production. From raising its own feed to running the hatchery to processing the catfish, the company has full control over the quality of the end product.

In the end, Mayo says the challenge for catfish producers in the United States is to worry less about competition from lower-cost imports and more about their own production issues.

He advocates targeting niches that play off the trend for health and environmental responsibility, rather than looking over one's shoulder to competition from abroad.

"Building a strong farmed catfish business is not about domestic versus imports," Mayo says. "It's about great eating and responsible production methods."


Thyra Porter is a freelance writer in Cape Elizabeth, Maine


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