Recently forbidden by U.S. law from using the word “catfish” to describe their fish exports, Vietnamese trade officials are facing more trouble on the aquaculture front. That trouble, in the form of an anti-dumping suit brought by Catfish Farmers of America (CFA), could result in higher tariffs and restricted imports of Vietnamese-raised fish.

Stemming from years of trade charges and counter-charges, each side wants to shape the current struggle to fit their agenda.

Hugh Warren, executive vice president of CFA, says the dispute is between besieged U.S. catfish producers and a communist Vietnamese government.

Vietnamese trade officials try to shape the conflict as one between rich U.S. farmers and poor Vietnamese farmers scratching to make a living.

“You must realize that the poor farmers the Vietnamese trade officials keep talking about are subject to the whims of their government. Never forget that Vietnam is a communist country,” says Warren.

On July 19, both sides presented their arguments when CFA attorneys presented a catfish anti-dumping petition (some 5 inches thick) to the U.S. International Trade Commission (ITC). The ITC, made up of five commissioners, is the first stop in an anti-dumping case. In the petition, CFA alleges that Vietnam has unfairly snatched a section of the U.S. catfish market by selling below-cost catfish.

The ITC commissioners was to reconvene in August to publicly vote on whether or not the anti-dumping case has merit enough to move to the next step up the legal ladder. If merit is found, the U.S. Dept. of Commerce will receive the CFA petition and imported Vietnamese fish will be that much closer to new tariffs.

“Right now, we're in a transition period between having presented our case before the ITC on July 19 and the August vote,” says Warren. “This is a major hurdle we're facing. The commissioners will meet and vote and we'll know whether it's a ‘go’ or ‘no go’ that very day. All the evidence — from both sides — has been available for their review since the July presentation.”

At the July 19 meeting, did the Vietnamese present anything new or unexpected? “Not really. They said, from their perspective, they weren't dumping fish. They declared the U.S. domestic market wasn't affected by their imports.”

According to U.S. trade representatives Delta Farm Press has spoken with, Vietnamese officials will have a tricky job disproving much of CFA's case. One sticky point: a “non-market economy” designation. A benign phrase for “communist country” a non-market economy label could mean that Vietnamese fish imports would not only be taxed but also severely restricted.

Despite name changes and poor publicity, imports of Vietnamese tra and basa (the names currently used for Vietnamese catfish) continue: during the first four months of this year, some 3 million pounds were brought into the United States. While this seems a high number, exports in March and April were down 65 percent compared with the previous year.

Catfish is big business. Last year, the U.S. catfish industry had revenues of $590 million. With that much at stake, it's no surprise CFA was paying attention when exports of Vietnamese fish leapt from 2 million pounds in 1999 to over 17 million pounds in 2001. The 17 million pounds in 2001, according to CFA figures, represented in excess of 12 percent of the market.

“Delta catfish growers should just continue to be patient. This is time-consuming and mandated by law. Further steps must be taken to get to a final disposition. That could mean that it will be December before the final outcome of this shakes loose. But if everything moves as scheduled, (the anti-dumping case) will be over by the end of the year.”


e-mail: dbennett@primediabusiness.com.