« June 2007 Table of Contents
One Man's Opinion: Catfish industry is at war — with itself
By Peter Redmayne
June 01, 2007
You have to hand it to the catfish guys, they're fighters.
And they have a lot to fight for. Farmed catfish is a $1
Their first scrap was with the Vietnamese. When Vietnam
started shipping a lot of farmed pangasius fillets, catfish
farmers from the Mississippi Delta rushed up to Washington,
D.C., and got a law passed that the Vietnamese could not call
their fish catfish. Then they filed a successful antidumping
petition that resulted in hefty tariffs on pangasius imports,
which have been in place since 2003.
This time around it's the Chinese. They're a little
trickier. And they're a bigger threat. In addition to pangasius
catfish, the Chinese are growing the same species of catfish,
Ictalurus punctatus , as U.S. farmers. The Chinese plan to
export a whole lot of cheap catfish to the U.S. market. And
nobody can ramp up production like the Chinese can.
Last year, U.S. imports of frozen Chinese catfish fillets
reached almost 17 million pounds, up from less than 4 million
pounds in 2005. In just the first two months of this year,
Chinese catfish imports were 9 million pounds, compared to just
1 million pounds during the same period last year (about 75
percent of China's catfish exports are Ictalurus and 25 percent
Because they can't play the name game, U.S. catfish
producers are playing the food-safety card. In late April and
May, the agriculture commissioners in catfish-producing states
like Mississippi, Alabama and Louisiana halted the sale of
Chinese catfish after they detected residues of banned
No matter that the levels were far below the Food and Drug
Administration's action thresholds. In catfish country, they
Of course the Chinese don't make it easy for themselves, as
the recent tainted pet and animal feed crises showed once
again. When it comes to cutting corners for an extra profit,
the Chinese just can't seem to help themselves.
U.S. catfish farmers will probably continue to make it hard
to sell imported catfish in the catfish belt, but that won't
stop the rising tide of catfish imports. The U.S. market is big
and demand for any reasonable quality frozen fillet that costs
less than $2.50 a pound is very high.
At that price, U.S. catfish farmers lose money and
production drops off. Over the past four years, the amount of
acreage devoted to farming catfish has declined each year.
Meanwhile, U.S. catfish processors, looking at less and less
volume to run through their plants, are between a rock and a
hard place. They can either continue to lose market share and
money - or they can start importing catfish themselves, albeit
at the risk of alienating their own farmers.
Faced with that Hobson's choice, it's not surprising that
the big catfish importers are U.S. catfish processors. No doubt
U.S. catfish farmers are already talking to their lawyers about
taking on the Chinese with a dumping petition. But as is the
case with the Vietnamese, they may win the battle but lose the
war. In spite of the duty, imports of Vietnamese pangasius
doubled last year to a record of almost 40 million pounds. The
U.S. catfish industry may soon find they have no one to fight
with but themselves.
Contributing Editor Peter Redmayne lives in Seattle