« August 2006 Table of Contents
U.S. catfish industry put to the test
Domestic producers battered but proud after basa
By James Wright
August 01, 2006
National Catfish Month, observed annually in August, will be
celebrated in ways both big and small. Belzoni, Miss., the
Catfish Capitol, will be buzzing, and hundreds of kids visiting
the Tennessee Aquarium in Chattanooga will playfully tug on the
whiskers of its mascot, "Cat Fish."
In addition, thousands of NASCAR tailgaters will get to vote
on their favorite catfish recipe, choosing among dishes crafted
by Dale Earnhardt Jr. and other top drivers on the circuit.
In a high-speed race of its own, the U.S. catfish industry
sees a hard-charging rival in its rearview mirror: Basa, a
catfish species farm-raised in faraway places like Vietnam and
Thailand. Domestic catfish's top challenger looks and tastes
like catfish, is typically 10 to 20 percent less expensive than
U.S. catfish, and has a foothold in desirable markets like
But with facts and figures shrouded in mystery and rumors of
mislabeling becoming reality, basa's true share of the U.S.
market until now has been left to speculation. It's impossible,
some argue, to rely on import statistics from the U.S.
government to tell how much basa enters the country.
The National Marine Fisheries Service reports that the
United States imported a record 30 million pounds of basa or
the similar tra in 2005, including 17.4 million pounds of
frozen fillets from Vietnam. It was likely much, much more.
Since basa can't be sold legally as catfish, and protective
tariffs await its arrival at U.S. ports, an untold amount of
product is imported as "non-specific freshwater fish fillets"
or is flagrantly mislabeled as another species. Some may enter
the country without physical inspection, but as the U.S.
government secures its borders, those days may soon come to an
Still, it's clear that catfish's competitor is here to stay
- despite measures to protect the domestic industry, basa
imports continue to roll along. Meanwhile, domestic production
is down - to 600 million pounds in 2005, a drop from 661
million in 2003 and 630 million in 2004 - and sales in recent
years have hit a plateau.
U .S. catfish producers have battled basa in courtrooms and
in Congress. Now the conflict centers on image and the forum is
public opinion - it's a fight that domestic producers say they
can't afford to lose.
In short, they say basa built its market on the catfish
legacy and therefore threatens U.S. farmers' and processors'
"Cheap imports undermine the backbone of America, which is
our agriculture," says Roger Barlow, president of The Catfish
Institute in Indianola, Miss., which markets on behalf of the
U.S. catfish industry's 1,000-plus farmers in 13 Southern
No one will deny that basa imports have had a tremendous
impact on the domestic industry. As basa took the U.S. market
by storm, pond-gate prices for domestic catfish dipped below
the cost of production, and some farmers barely survived.
Only now are the economics turning around, fueled in part by
lower feed costs. In 2003, catfish farmers received a $34
million drought-relief package to help them buy feed.
"We're enjoying the best pond prices in recent years, 82
cents [a pound]," says Hugh Warren, VP of Catfish Farmers of
America, which represents U.S. farmers' legal interests. "It'd
be a lot better if energy costs weren't working on that margin.
It takes a little shine off the 82."
There are other concerns: Will production pick back up after
two down years? Can suppliers penetrate new markets? Is tilapia
vying for the same market share? Can small family farms survive
today in the face of corporate consolidation?
Yet, in the end, it's all about basa.
The battle begins
In 2001, U.S. catfish-industry lobbyists got Congress to ban
the use of the word "catfish" to market any species outside of
the family Ictaluridae, especially basa or swai (Pangasius
bocourti) or tra (Pangasius hypophthalmus), the top
catfish-family species from overseas. "Catfish" would be
strictly reserved for channel catfish (Ictalurus
That year, U.S. basa imports jumped to 18 million, up from
the previous record of 8 million pounds in 2000, according to
NMFS. When the ruling established the official nomenclature,
imports fell to 10 million pounds in 2002, but basa had already
gained acceptance in the U.S. market.
Its quality was consistent and met the requisite price-point
criteria for cost-minded buyers.
TCI also launched its U.S. Farm-Raised Catfish brand in 2001
to bring attention to domestic product. When U.S. foodservice
operations - some in the heart of catfish country - switched to
basa to cut costs, it was time for further action.
In June 2002, the Catfish Farmers of America filed an
antidumping petition, accusing Vietnamese exporters of charging
below-market value for their product. They won the ensuing
lawsuit, and basa imports plummeted to 5.4 million pounds in
2003 after the U.S. government slapped basa imports with
tariffs ranging from 37 to 64 percent.
"It was a matter of survival," Warren explains.
The downturn proved to be only temporary. Rumors spread of
disreputable exporters capitalizing on the spiked demand by
transshipping through other countries or labeling their product
as grouper, dory, sole, bass and other species to avoid
tariffs. In May, two Florida importers were indicted on 42
counts of selling tra as wild grouper.
Now, as basa imports climb again, folks like Barlow and
Warren are taking off the gloves, using words like "inferior,"
"imposter" and "invader."
"[Basa is] not raised in clean water, it's not fed the
scientific protein like ours," Barlow says. "U.S. farm-raised
catfish is from man-made ponds with pure underground water, not
the Mekong Delta, the toilet bowl of Asia."
Matt Fass, VP of Maritime Products International of Newport
News, Va., says that is "a gross misrepresentation of reality."
MPI has imported basa from Vietnam since the late 1990s.
"Let's not kid ourselves," says Fass. "Basa's got whiskers
and no scales, but the meat tastes more like orange roughy than
domestic catfish. It only competes with catfish in the sense
that it's a fish.
"It's been disheartening to see all the barriers put up
against [basa]. It's a great fish. Transshipping and
mislabeling are shameful. But so was the antidumping suit."
All in the family
Competing with imports has also taken a toll on small family
farms, once the face of the industry. When the market price
crashed a few years ago, many chose or were forced to drop
Rob Mayo, president and founder of Carolina Classics Catfish
in Ayden, N.C., sources catfish from several
farmers in what has
become a symbiotic relationship. Others
aren't as fortunate, he says, and were pushed out of business
"But the overall seafood supply has been 75 percent imports
ever since I've been in the business," Mayo adds. "The threat
of competition, it's always been there; it just wasn't
That's little consolation for small farmers like Jim
Once the proud owner and operator of a 58-acre catfish farm
in Eudora, Ark., Popejoy says he's now "surviving with caution,
waiting for the axe," after lenders liquidated his farm and its
assets in early 2005, saddling him with sizeable debt. He says
it's all because the industry was unprepared to compete with
the influx of basa imports.
"The import of Vietnamese fish was not immediately addressed
by the industry, as it did not feel the fish-import volume
would increase as rapidly as it did," he says.
"The oversupply of live fish on U.S. farms [caused a]
downward cycle to a 24-month average of 53 cents, below the
cost of production of 68 to 73 cents a pound. It was a no-win
The protective measures TCI and CFA took to stem the flow of
imports were intended to protect folks like Popejoy and the
catfish-reliant economies in some of the South's poorest
areas. But an extended period of low prices was simply too much
for some small farmers to bear.
"There's no question that there are stresses on all U.S.
agriculture," Barlow says. "Catfish is no different. The farmer
always will be the one that really has the hardest road to hoe.
To make a profit in farming is difficult."
Catfish's importance to the region cannot be understated,
Barlow says. He notes that catfish has a multiplier of seven:
For every dollar of catfish raised, seven other dollars in the
region are directly or indirectly affected. So it's no
coincidence that a lot of catfish producers use the word
"pride" in their company titles.
"We have probably the greatest aquaculture product in the
world," Barlow says. "U.S. farm-raised catfish is truly a
product that distinguishes itself from its competitors."
However, Mayo and Popejoy say TCI hasn't sufficiently
marketed a positive message about catfish; instead it has
focused on cutting costs and filing lawsuits.
"There's been no imagination and no effort in telling the
great story of our product," Mayo says. "Our industry has been
asleep on that. I think that catfish needs to be reintroduced
to the public as a tasty, versatile fish that does well on the
environmental and health scorecards."
Randy Rhodes, VP of national sales and business development
for Inland Seafood of Atlanta, recently left American Pride
Seafoods of Greensboro, Ala., formerly Southern Pride Catfish,
a division of American Seafoods Group, after 23 years. He says
the domestic industry had little other choice than to wage a
"We wish we could have done more proactive marketing, but we
had to pick the best medicine at the moment," Rhodes says.
"Basa made it obvious that it's a global market. Now, the
Chinese are producing catfish, the same species as domestic,
and that may provide an even bigger obstacle."
From 2004, when the United States first began documenting
catfish imports by species, through May 2006, U.S. imports of
channel catfish total 5.9 million pounds - 83 percent from
Has tilapia also taken a bite out of catfish's demand? While
Rhodes says tilapia has "made a dent," others aren't as
"In the overall whitefish situation, the resource is
stretched out," says John Victoria, seafood specialist for
Western Edge Seafood of Claysville, Pa. "There are heavy
demands on whitefish. But tilapia is its own industry now. It's
got its own profile; it's mainstream."
Going to California
The National Fisheries Institute's 2004 Top 10
species-consumption list ranked catfish No. 5, at just over 1
pound per capita, behind shrimp, canned tuna, salmon and
pollock (tilapia, which debuted on the list in 2001, is on
catfish's heels at No. 6). Conversely, there's much room for
With overall demand for seafood at record highs both in the
United States and abroad, there's never been a better time to
explore new markets and attract menu makers. Can catfish grow
beyond a regional favorite and find its way onto menus in
places like New York and Los Angeles?
"We're moving outward; there's U.S. catfish in every state,"
Barlow says. "The bulk [of sales] is in heartland states, but
California in particular offers a tremendous opportunity, as do
large metro areas like Chicago and Detroit. And we still have
not saturated our present opportunities in places like Atlanta,
Memphis and Dallas."
What would it take for hushpuppies to hit Hollywood? A
promotional effort unlike any before it, one that Barlow says
is already under way. TCI has invested in a new identity, he
says, which was difficult to do with an annual budget of less
than $4 million.
"We're looking at marketing in a way we never have before,
analyzing every dollar we spend," Barlow says. "Everything we
do today is new - new ad agency, new PR agency, new partnership
program with Viking ranges, new processor-partnership program,
new Web site.
"A lot of bright lights will shine on this industry in the
future," Barlow says, confident that U.S. catfish will get up
to speed and take the checkered flag.
Gentlemen, start your engines.
Assistant Editor James Wright can be