After several years, hard work by members of The Catfish Institute to address the threat of illegally imported fish from Vietnam that closely resembles farm-raised domestic catfish appears to be making a difference.

A few weeks ago, U.S. Customs agents announced more than 40 indictments against one person associated with illegally importing basa from Vietnam.

If convicted, punishment could include a $500,000 fine.

Seymour Johnson, catfish farmer in Indianola, Miss., heads TCI’s Vietnamese Strategy Committee. He said the latest charges represent an increased, aggressive effort by the U.S. government to enforce the trade tariff with Vietnam.

“He (the suspect) was picked up in Belgium by authorities, so that just goes to show how vigilant agents have become in pursuing these kinds of charges,” Johnson said.

Agents’ enforcement efforts, however, are an indirect result of TCI’s lobbying and other work toward persuading the government to help protect the U.S. catfish industry’s financial interests.

“We’ve been successful to the extent of $5.47 million in tariff fees collected and distributed last year and I expect that number will be $10 million annually over the next two years,” Johnson said.

However, while the trade tariff has generated new funds for the industry, the issue has also forced the industry to redirect its focus away from marketing its product to consumers.

Because the tariff is expensive, the temptation for unscrupulous individuals to avoid paying the tariff runs high. Johnson said thus far, offenses have been widespread, flagrant and with impunity.

“Circumvention of the trade laws have been insidious, some of these countries just don’t recognize U.S. law. It must be enforced or there will be no fair trade.”

About four years ago TCI generated several million dollars it would need for legal fees to persuade U.S. trade officials to establish the current export rules with Vietnam.

Johnson said he knew from first-hand experience that finding success would be long and expensive.

In the late 1970s Johnson headed the U.S. Soybean Board, and recalled its fight to defend its export program with European trade officials.

“It was the reverse situation (from the catfish industry’s present trade issues) then; we were defending ourselves. But that was the heyday for U.S. exports.

“Today, all domestic crops are having trouble with export agreements.”

Johnson noted that the United States is learning that beyond addressing enforcement issues, it’s also “experiencing what the fairness in free trade is all about.”

Citing an example, he recalled a conversation with actor Morgan Freeman, before Freeman won an Academy Award: “He said his popularity is greater overseas than it is in the United States because one week after a film debuts in the theaters here, you can buy a cheap counterfeit copy of it in Hong Kong.”

Johnson said that as the United States begins to better tackle the challenges of enforcing international trade pacts in the future, the blatant violations he is aware of taking place today will fade, yet the crimes will become more subtle and sophisticated — and more difficult to mitigate. So too will trade officials have to address verification concerns, he said.

While TCI is proud of the progress its members have made concerning the basa issue, Johnson said, there is a lot more legal and lobbying work ahead of them. In 2008, the current trade pact with Vietnam is scheduled to undergo review by U.S. trade officials.

“I feel optimistic about renewing its status because our current track record will be substantial with the cases.”

He said that the documented violations have caught the attention of the Vietnamese government.

“They are going to their country’s fishing industry and telling them that they are giving their country a black eye — at least that’s what their press releases say.”

e-mail: abell@farmpress.com