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Domestic production falls, as imports continue to rise

Property of SeaFood Business magazine
- James Wright
November 01, 2006

Domestic catfish production in 2006 is expected to fall short of the 600-million-pound mark for the first time in five years, while imports of farmed channel catfish and basa from Asia continue to rise.

A Sept. 21 report by the U.S. De­partment of Agriculture's National Agricultural Statistics Service notes that 379 million pounds of catfish (round-weight) was processed through July, down 8 percent from last year. The USDA estimates that 2006's total output will be in the range of 550 million to 565 million pounds.

Rob Mayo, president of Carolina Classics Catfish in Ayden, N.C., expects tight supplies for 2007 as well. Mayo attributes the dip to "protracted fallout related to farmers who left the business or shrunk their production during the low-price years."

As recently as 2002, farmers were getting less than 55 cents a pound. In September, the average pond price was 81 cents a pound, live weight, up about 9 cents from last year, according to the USDA. But Hugh Warren, executive VP of Catfish Farmers of America in Indianola, Miss., said in early October that prices were up to 85 cents.

"It's an all-time high," Warren said, noting that the average pond price is a sign that supplies will be tight during the winter months.

Growers estimate there will be 124,000 acres of ponds for full-scale food-fish production between July and December, down 1 percent from a year ago. Broodfish-production acre­age has increased 1 percent this year, but broodfish inventory is down 10 percent, to just 930,000 fish. Acres used for fingerling production are up 3 percent this year.

The four major catfish-producing states (Alabama, Arkansas, Louisiana and Mississippi) tallied 753 farmers 
as of July 1, down from 766 the year before.

The August 2006 average price to processors for fresh whole fish was $1.76 a pound, up 19 cents from last year; fresh fillets jumped 37 cents, to $3.20; frozen whole fish were up 18 cents, to $2.17; and frozen fillets were up 38 cents, to $3.06.

Increased imports signal a high level of demand for catfish. One trend to watch is the rise in Chinese catfish, which is the same species as domestic catfish (Ictalurus punctatus). This year, just its second year of catfish production, China has exported 3.3 million pounds to the United States, a 315 percent increase from 2005.

"If you have the compete-on-cost philosophy, you'd have to be alarmed about the Chinese product," Mayo says.

Meanwhile, basa imports are steadily climbing. Through July, total U.S. imports of basa (also known as swai or tra) totaled 19.2 million pounds, a 67 percent increase from last year.

Federal officials this year have cracked down on intentional mislabeling and other acts of fraud that have been suspected for some time. In August, two seafood dealers pleaded guilty in federal court to conspiring to import and sell more than 1 million pounds of Vietnamese swai mislabeled as grouper and other species in the United States and Canada.

Danny Nguyen of Panhandle Seafood and Panhandle Trading in Panama City, Fla., faces up to 25 years in prison and $750,000 in fines. In September, Belgian authorities released the other defendant, Buu Huy of An Giang Agricultural and Food Import Export Co. in Vietnam, after his arrest in May at the European Seafood Exhibition in Brussels. - J.W.

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