STONEVILLE, Miss. -- More than a decade ago, the farm-raised shrimp industry took a beating in the marketplace simply because it became stigmatized as a kind of aquaculture not friendly to the environment.

While catfish farmers have steered clear of such problems, they must be on guard that such a negative stigma could be applied to them just as easily and quickly.

That was an integral part of the speech entitled, “Minimizing Environmental Impact in Catfish Farming,” presented by Craig Tucker, National Warmwater Aquaculture Center director, Stoneville, Miss., at the annual Fish Farming Trade Show in Greenville, Miss., on Feb. 2.

Tucker said he wonders how many catfish farmers have considered the increased scrutiny that the relationship between aquaculture and the environment has received over the past decade.

“The lack of recognition of this among the catfish farmers is mainly because catfish farming is one of the most environmentally friendly forms of aquaculture there is. It’s not something you’ve had to deal with but that is changing,” Tucker told the audience.

Tucker said there are varying reasons why the catfish farmer should pay attention to the subject, but concentrated on a few points.

His first point was an obvious one: “As an owner of land, you should have an interest in the long-term efficient use of the available resources,” he said.

“One of the words that once used to be a buzz word in agriculture was sustainability. It just means using the resources efficiently so the activity, farming, can be sustained for a longer period of time.”

He pointed out that if, for no other reason, a farmer who practices with an efficient model will reap the reward of an increased profit margin.

“For example, if you employ methods to conserve water on your farm that will reduce the cost of pumping water from a well, the savings can be relatively significant.”

Tucker recalled that when the farm-raised shrimp industry was tagged with the perception that it was a poor steward of the environment, grocery stores and restaurants completely boycotted the product.

“It was simply over the bad image,” he said.

Tucker encouraged catfish farmers in the audience to make sure that their industry remains in favorable status with environmentalists.

“All the pertinent environmental groups consistently rank catfish farming near the top of the list of environmental performance. It’s not something the industry has had to deal with, but you want to be aware of it,” he said.

In recent years there has also been a growing inclination by large companies — from retail behemoths to restaurant conglomerates to grocery stores — to demand fish products they sell have a stamp of approval.

Citing an example, Tucker mentioned the Maritime Stewardship Council, a certifying agent that reviews how certain types of fish are being caught and fed in a sustainable system.

Tucker said the significance of this trend is that more and more buyers are starting to demand, not simply prefer, these products be certified.

“In November of last year, Wal-Mart announced that it was only going to buy and sell shrimp from certified sustainable aquaculture systems,” he said.

Tucker said certification is a marketing path that is “hard to see where it is going.”

Tucker said there is a “hot list” of about 10 issues environmentalists have with fish farmers, including:

• Pollution

• Fish meal in feeds

• Impacts of escaped fish

• Spread of diseases

• Water use

• Habitat conversion

• Drug and chemical usage

• Predator control

• Energy use

Tucker spoke on a few issues on the list, noting that in terms of total energy use, while catfish farming is behind other kinds of crops, it ranks high when stacked up against other kinds of industries primarily dependent on water.

He cautioned, however, that in the Delta, catfish farmers may need to prepare themselves for greater scrutiny in the future due to fears of water supply shortage for all.

“Water conservation fits right into governmental regulatory issues,” he observed. “Catfish farming is a significant use of water in the Delta, and this could be a problem in the future. Our report card for water use is near the bad side of efficiency.”

Tucker said the catfish industry’s biggest “black mark” with environmentalists concerns predatory control.

“Every environmentalist group has come down really hard on this issue,” he said. “Our industry’s rebuttal is this: That wildlife diversity around fish farm is higher than if the farm wasn’t there.

“The farm is attracting not only fish eating birds but all kinds of other habitat. But environmentalists reject that. All they say is, ‘you shoot birds.’”

He boasted that for catfish farmers, because most fish are raised in control ponds, no water or chemicals used are discharged into the environment — a key component of environmentalists’ rating system.

Also favorable for catfish growers, habitat conversion is not an issue in Mississippi, Alabama and Arkansas, he said, especially compared to some areas in Louisiana where shrimp farms may substitute coastal wetlands or swamps.

Finally, Tucker said catfish producers are one of only two kinds of aquacultures around the world that can laud one distinction. “Of all the major cultures in the world, catfish and tilapia are the only ones where more fish are grown than fish is used in the feed. Both are net producers of fish, the only ones in the world to boast that claim.”

e-mail: abell@prismb2b.com