« July 2007 Table of Contents
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
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
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
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
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,
Victoria, president of Western Edge in Pittsburgh, a
Chinese catfish importer.
Imports have recently slowed as a result, according to
"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
The reaction was immediate: Wal-Mart pulled imported catfish
off its shelves in several states.
"That slowed down the sales of imports almost immediately,"
The Alabama Department of Agriculture and Industries also
ordered a stop-sale on all Chinese catfish this spring,
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,
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
"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
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
"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
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
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,