“The level of Vietnamese fish imports into the United States has been exploding over the past 18 months,” says Austin Jones, who farms more than 1,000 acres of catfish near here. “It’s an exponential growth that is unbelievable and we’re not seeing it leveling off yet.”

Jones, past president of the Catfish Farmers of America, says that more than 20 percent of the fish filets sold in the United States in June were Vietnamese fish. As that figure continues to grow, the imported fish will displace more and more U.S. farm-raised catfish in the seafood market.

“Over the past 20 or 30 years, The Catfish Institute and the Catfish Farmers of America have worked hard to promote catfish and build the market up for farm-raised catfish, and now foreign competition is going to come in and take it from us,” he said.

This increased competition from imported fish also figures in the current market slump in catfish prices. The per pound price for catfish is currently hovering around 62-cents, with farm gate prices averaging about 59-cents after expenses such as hauling and unloading fees are deducted.

The “normal” per pound price for catfish historically, Jones says, is somewhere in the mid-70-cents range. “I think the likelihood is that the price will continue to drop further. I don’t believe there is any immediate upside potential at this point. The best we can hope for is to hold current prices level through Thanksgiving.

“The law of supply and demand says the price will go down in the mid-summer to fall, and they have gone down from what we saw this past spring. But, since they are going down from what was already a low point, they have really dropped. This is the cheapest I’ve seen catfish prices since I started my business in 1982.”

What’s worse, says Jones, is the fear that any product shortage which would typically bring the price of catfish back up will instead open the door for more imports to come in.

In a normal supply and demand cycle, Jones says catfish producers, who farm more than 80,000 acres in the Mississippi Delta, often decrease production by reducing feeding in times of extremely low prices. That way, somewhere down the line the fish supply gets short and the glut goes away raising catfish prices. The Vietnamese fish imports, however, are changing that scenario.

“I think feed production will start going down, processing is down and the catfish tonnage sold in Mississippi will be down for July, but I don’t see us becoming short of product because of the exponential growth of the Vietnamese fish being imported into the United States,” he says.

Jones has no idea what the answers are, but says he thinks a labeling law will go a long way in helping battle the imports on the retail level. What concerns him the most, though, is the food service industry. “When you go to a restaurant and order catfish off a menu, it doesn’t matter what the label says if its back in the kitchen and you can’t see it. You’d likely never know whether you were eating U.S. farm-raised catfish or not, especially if you are not someone who hasn’t eaten catfish all of his life like I have.”

In comparison, Jones says he thinks the U.S. catfish industry will win the battle every time against Vietnamese fish on the retail front. “When a consumer goes into a grocery store and sees both Vietnamese fish and Mississippi farm-raised catfish, I think he or she will choose the U.S. farm-raised catfish the majority of the time,” Jones says.

“We are losing our market to foreign fish that are not grown under the same conditions that we have to grow our fish under,” he says. “As catfish producers in the United States, we have to meet both EPA and FDA regulations, and U.S. farm-raised catfish are constantly inspected from the time they get to the processing plant to the time they get to the consumers. The fish being imported from Vietnam don’t have to undergo the same inspections that ours do, so we don’t really know that they are even safe for the consumers.

“I’m not opposed to foreign competition, but we need to compete on the same even playing field. And, right now, we are definitely having to meet stricter guidelines than they are meeting,” Jones says. “There are a lot more rivers in the world than the Mekong River in Vietnam. This will continue as a potential problem unless we put a stop to it now.

He adds, “We’re used to high and low prices, that’s part of the game. However, there are very few farmers, if any, that can stay in business with 60-cent catfish and there’s no other alternative crop to put in our catfish ponds.”

e-mail: dmuzzi@primediabusiness.com